Forest Park had to work very hard to defeat North Dickinson 24-20 in the Division 8 regional championship game Nov. 15 at Dick Mettlach Field—and that made the post-game trophy presentation even sweeter.
CRYSTAL FALLS—Forest Park never trailed North Dickinson during its Division 8 regional title game here Nov. 15, but the Trojans never breathed easily, either.
Only after a last-second hook-and-ladder play was broken up could the Forest Park faithful exhale and celebrate a 24-20 win, another regional title and a date in the state semifinals this weekend. The Trojans are now 12-0.
“I think everybody there,” Coach Bill Santilli said later, “didn’t really know the outcome of that game until that zero showed up on the scoreboard.”
Forest Park has certainly not blown away its opponents in this year’s playoffs (30-16 over Gogebic, 16-9 over L’Anse). The regional title game wasn’t any different.
North Dickinson, bolstered by the return of several injured players who missed ND’s 43-20 loss to the Trojans on Oct. 4, never quit, showed they could strike quickly and had everyone in red and black on pins and needles as the final minutes slowly ticked away.
Forest Park led 16-12 as the fourth quarter started and seemed to take command with a 52-yard scoring drive. A 13-yard run by Austin Snell was the big play, but the Trojans had to convert a pair of third downs before Lee Graff twisted into the end zone from the 2. A pass from QB Jeff Johnson was incomplete, but the Trojans now led 22-12 with 6:07 left.
The 10-point lead lasted just 16 seconds.
On the first play after the kickoff, Nordic QB Logan O’Neil passed to Noah Berg over the middle, and Berg turned on the jets down the right side, outracing Trojan defenders for a 71-yard TD. O’Neil flipped a two-point pass to Berg, and the Nordics were back within two, 22-20, with 5:51 left to play.
“Look at the scoreboard,” Assistant Coach Dave Graff told his team just before the kickoff. “We’ve got the lead and six minutes to play.”
Forest Park got the kickoff and chewed up half that time, with Johnson draining every second possible before the snap. (Once he cut it too close and was called for delay.)
The Trojans finally punted, and Raymond Tomasik’s kick was everything FP’s coaches wished for—it was downed at the Nordics 1. ND ball, 99 yards from the Trojan goal with 2:17 left.
On third down from the 5, O’Neil went back to pass, was hurried and threw the ball away—but was flagged for grounding. And since he threw the ball from the end zone, it was an automatic safety. FP now led 24-20 with 1:22 left, and the Nordics had to kick to Forest Park from its 20. The win’s finally in the bag, right?
Wrong! The Nordics tried an onside kick, and it worked: ND ball at their 32. Two short passes earned a first down at the Nordics 45, but after using their final time-out, ND could only stop the clock by spiking the ball.
O’Neil’s pass to Derek Wagner got ND a first down at the Trojan 42. After a spike and a delay penalty. O’Neil rolled out to the left but was tackled inbounds by Steven Hallmann and Connor Dalpra.
Seconds to go! Clock running! O’Neil passed to a teammate in front of its bench, who tried for the hook-and-ladder play. Forest Park’s defenders (Connor Kezerle) broke it up and time finally ran out.
“We play with a lot of heart,” Santilli said the next day. “We make mistakes but yet we made plays when we had to make them. This is not the most talented team we’ve ever had, but they just seem to find a way to hang on and win.
“That’s a statistic you can’t coach. They just have that will.”
North Dickinson opened the game with a long drive that ended on downs at the Trojan 23—they came about 6 inches short on a 4th and 2 play. Forest Park got 19 yards on a Snell run, but the offensive star of the Trojans’ first drive was Tomasik, who had runs of 14 and 25 yards on third down. Graff scored from the 2, and Snell’s two-point run put the Trojans in front 8-0 early in the second quarter.
Two plays later, a Nordics handoff was missed, and FP’s Adam Hilberg recovered the fumble at the ND 38. The Nordics forced 4th and 8, when Johnson passed down the right side to Snell, who deked around a tackler and scored from 36 yards out. Tomasik’s two-point run made it 16-0, Forest Park.
The Nordics came back. After Daniel Nocerini’s sack forced 3rd and 14, O’Neil passed to Berg, who beat his defender and got away for a 69-yard touchdown. Another Nocerini tackle stopped the convert and kept the score at 16-6.
Forest Park nearly scored late in the half, with Tomasik’s 30-yard run starting it with a bang. But it was slow going after that. On fourth down at the ND 4, Snell went around the left side but was stopped a foot short.
Down 16-6 at halftime, the Nordics attacked early in the third quarter. Tim Hruska’s 19-yard run and O’Neil’s pass to Wagner put ND on the Trojan 9. After Hruska’s TD run was negated by a holding penalty, ND got the score anyway on O’Neil’s 17-yard pass to Berg, who outjumped his defenders. That cut Forest Park’s lead to 16-12 late in the third quarter.
Santilli noted that Forest Park still hasn’t found the perfect combination of people—but at this point it’s much too late to move people around. “It comes down to trying to sharpen up the guys who have been playing those spots all year and going with what we feel is our best lineup.”
Tomasil got a major role in the running game after Graff got banged up during the L’Anse game and was held out of practice.
“We told Ray that you’ve got to be the bull we rely on,” Santilli said. “Ray was very effective running hard. The linemen were giving him just enough nice blocks, and, boy, he was very effective running hard, putting the shoulder down and dragging some guys with him at times.”
Santilli said the Trojans wanted to throw more, but with the lead in a close game, Forest Park coaches wanted to run the ball and keep the clock running.
Team stats: FP, 274 total yards (42-237 rushing, 1-6-37 passing); ND, 328 total yards (28-102 rushing, 11-16-226 passing). First downs: FP 11, ND 10.
Individual stats: Rushing: Raymond Tomasik, 15-114; Lee Graff, 16-55; Austin Snell, 9-49. Passing: Jeff Johnson, 1-6-37. Receiving: Snell, 1-37. ND rushing: Tim Hruska, 9-52; Matt Schultz, 11-36. ND passing: Logan O’Neil, 11-16-226. ND receiving: Noah Berg, 6-190; Derek Wagner, 2-21.
Defense (tackles-assists): Adam Hilberg, 7-5; Daniel Nocerini, 7-3; Tomasik, 4-5; Billy Ragio, 6-2. Fumble recovery: Hilberg. Interception: Graff. Sacks: Nocerini 2.
• This Saturday, Nov. 23, Forest Park plays in the state semifinals for the first time since 2010. The opponent: Beal City.
It will be played at the Superior Dome in Marquette and kicks off at 10 a.m. Eastern Time (9 Central).
Both teams are undefeated—but unlike Forest Park, the Aggies have run roughshod through the playoffs, with wins by scores of 68-15, 38-0 and 55-0 (the regional title game Nov. 15 over St. Ignace).
Beal City’s only close game all season was a 42-35 overtime win over Class C Lake City (which lost to Ishpeming in the D7 playoffs last Saturday). During the regular season, the Aggies piled up plenty of points whenever they got a chance, winning by scores of 61-0, 77-0, 74-0 and 70-0.
Maybe it’s a David and Goliath story.
Nordics 0 6 6 8 -- 20
Trojans 0 16 0 8 -- 24