MARQUETTE—You have heard it so many times: To defeat an elite opponent, you have to play mistake-free.
Beal City did just that at the Superior Dome here Nov. 23 in the Division 8 state semifinals. Forest Park did not. Beal City moves on to the state finals this Friday. Forest Park packs away the gear until late next summer.
The Aggies punched their ticket to Ford Field with a 34-18 win over a Trojan squad that struggled with turnovers all day. It was far from Forest Park’s best, and the Trojans, who finish the year with a still-outstanding 12-1 record, can only play the “what if” game.
“Too many turnovers,” Coach Bill Santilli said after it was over. “When you get to this level, one mistake can make it or break it.
“We had four turnovers that resulted in possession changes, and that was something we couldn’t overcome.”
The Trojans started fast, with a series of Austin Snell runs earning first downs on three straight plays. Beal City’s defense forced a punt, but soon FP had the ball back, and QB Jeff Johnson’s 35-yard pass to Snell gave the Trojans a first down at the Aggies 26.
After that, Raymond Tomasik and Lee Graff ran the ball on eight straight plays, setting up 3rd and goal inside the 1. Johnson faked a handoff into the line and instead passed to Snell, totally uncovered in the end zone, for the score. The two-point run was stopped, but the Trojans led 6-0 late in the first quarter.
Beal City earned three first downs on its first threat, but FP’s defense made the big stop on 4th and 2 at the Trojan 23. The Aggies forced a punt and renewed the attack. An 18-yard pass from QB Kurt Gross to Ryan Tilmann and Hayden Huber’s 10-yard run set up Ty Rollin’s TD run from the 1. Rollin kicked Beal City to a 7-6 lead.
Next: the Trojans’ first turnover disaster. BC’s squib kickoff bounced off the turf and then off Tomasik when he tried to field it. Loose ball, and the Aggies recovered at the Trojan 36. Two plays later, Gross and Tilmann connected on a screen pass down the left side for a 36-yard touchdown. The kick put Beal City ahead 14-6.
The Aggies’ 14 points in 20 seconds shifted momentum for good. “Beal City’s a quick-striking team,” Santilli said. “They get a turnover, and right away they go for the home run. That’s what they did.”
Forest Park threatened a little later, getting as close as the Aggies 17 on a 21-yard Graff run and a 14-yard pass to Snell, but a pair of sacks ended the first half.
Santilli said he wasn’t too upset with the Trojans trailing 14-6 at halftime. “We played a pretty darn good first half,” he said.
Beal City got the second half kickoff and struck again in only four plays. A 33-yard pass to Tilmann and Huber’s 12-yard run got BC to the Trojan 7, where Gross passed to Carson Salisbury for the score. After the kick, it was 21-6.
Through FP’s first 12 games, Graff had lost just one fumble. In the next few minutes, he lost two. The first came on the first play after the kickoff. FP survived that one—Huber scored on an apparent 35-yard TD, but it came back on a holding penalty, and Billy Ragio broke up a fourth down pass.
Forest Park’s offense earned a first down at the BC 32, after Graff’s 9- and 14-yard runs. Then he went through the right side and lost the handle again. Aggies ball at their 18.
This time they made the Trojans pay. Beal City drove 82 yards in seven plays, with Gross throwing completions of 20, 18 and 22 yards—the last to Tilmann for another score. Late in the third quarter, Beal City led 27-6.
Things looked pretty bleak for the Red and Black, but Johnson gave the team life by fielding the kickoff on the bounce and breaking through defenders for a 58-yard return to the Beal City 24. Snell’s 11 yard run earned a first down just outside the 10. Snell to the 4. Tomasik to the 3.
Third and 3 at the 3. Graff hit the right side and was tackled just short of the goal line—but the sticks came out and showed he had earned a first down. First and goal, Trojans, inside the 1!
Then, on the next play, Graff lost a fumble, and Beal City recovered.
Another terribly demoralizing setback, but the Trojans never quit. In four plays, they had the ball back and drove 45 yards, highlighted by Johnson’s 22-yard pass to Nocerini at the 9. Two plays later, Tomasik scored on a 6-yard run, and the lead was down to 27-12 with 5:55 left.
But this was Beal City’s day. The Aggies drove 54 yards in nine plays for another score, on Luke Farrell’s 20-yard run. Now it was 34-12 with 2:50 left.
With time running down, FP dug deep into the gadget box. Snell took a lateral from Johnson near his goal line and returned the kickoff to midfield. Graff’s option pass to Johnson gained 22 for a first down at the Aggies 17. As the last seconds ticked off, FP tried a fleaflicker play that was intercepted. But the Aggies were flagged for roughing the passer.
With all zeros on the clock, Johnson passed to a knot of players in the end zone. It was a jump ball, and Nocerini made the catch for the 7-yard TD, making it 34-18. And that’s how it ended—there was no try after the touchdown, so the Trojans scored on their final play of the season.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” said Santilli. “We knew we were going to give up some points. To hold Beal City even to 34 was a pretty good accomplishment.”
The two turnovers in the Aggies’ red zone obviously cost Forest Park dearly. If the Trojans had scored both times, that’s at least 12 more points. “All of a sudden, you play with a little more confidence defensively, and who knows? Maybe we would have made one more stop of those guys.”