JACKSON – Orchard Lake St. Mary's beat Battle Creek Harper Creek 14-10 on Saturday to move on to the state championship against Mount Pleasant at Ford Field next weekend.
The star: Junior fullback Grant Niemiec put the team on his back with 129 yards rushing and two touchdowns, including the game-winning score from 11 yards out with less than a minute left in the game, to give St. Mary's the lead for good.
The turning point: St. Mary's faced a difficult path to win the game — on the Eaglets' last offensive drive, they had to go 80 yards in about three minutes. After Niemiec converted a fourth-and-1 run, and quarterback Dan Clements ran for a 10-yard gain to set up the score, Niemiec punched it in from 11 yards out with a run on the left side of the field.
The quote: "It’s all about the team. We’re a family here and that’s the only thing that matters around here. We had to score. It was mandatory. We couldn’t be stopped." — Niemiec
What’s next? St. Mary's will kick off for the Division 3 state championship against Mount Pleasant at Ford Field in Detroit next weekend. The tentative kick-off time is 7 p.m. Saturday.
Bottom line: St. Mary's has been able to impose its will on most teams this season, despite the Eaglets' tough schedule. However, just as they did against , they faced a team in Harper Creek that was too good to be forced into doing anything. Thanks to the heady play of Clements, the toughness of Niemiec and the perseverance of the defense, St. Mary's is going back to Ford Field for the third straight season.
JACKSON — Late in the fourth quarter of Saturday's Division 3 semifinal game against Battle Creek Harper Creek, it seemed like Orchard Lake St. Mary's had tried to do everything it could to score and still trailed. However, the Eaglets were finally able to break through on an 80-yard drive, and with less than a minute remaining, junior fullback Grant Niemiec ran in the score to win, 14-10.
"We were able to squeak out a good touchdown. We thought we could get that the whole game, and it just came to us at the last second," Niemiec said. "Now, it's just so exciting."
The win on the road means St. Mary's will travel to Ford Field in Detroit next weekend to play in the Division 3 state final game for the third straight year. After five-time defending champion East Grand Rapids was bounced by Mount Pleasant, it set up the Eaglets for a date with the Oilers. The tentative kick-off time is 7 p.m. Saturday.
However, the Eaglets almost didn't make it to Ford Field at all. The game started off well enough, after Niemiec and senior running back Spencer McInnis pushed St. Mary's 80 yards on the game's opening drive to set up the first score of the game. A 35-yard run from Niemiec helped set it up so he was able to score from two yards out, with 8:03 left in the first quarter.
"Our offensive line is amazing. They’re where it all starts and ends," Niemiec said. "We know it's playoff football and any team can beat you at any time and we know this team is good."
Indeed, the Beavers bounced back. After a botched kickoff gave Harper Creek the ball at the St. Mary's 36-yard line, junior running back Kasey Carson helped push into the Eaglets' red zone.
Senior quarterback Braden Black took the snap on third-and-7 from the St. Mary's 9-yard line and rolled left, stopped and fired to senior tight end Cody Callahan. Callahan missed the pass, but it ended up in the hands of junior Connor Bauserman, who scored the touchdown.
After that point, the Eaglets' offense struggled to run the ball up the middle and through a Harper Creek offensive line that allegedly averages 300 pounds apiece. The game-time temperature of 46 degrees with a cold wind didn't help the passing attack either. After Niemiec converted a fourth-and-1 in the Beavers' red zone, the Eaglets were forced to throw. Bauserman intercepted a pass from senior quarterback Dan Clements in the end zone, killing a potential scoring drive late in the first quarter.
On the Eaglets' next possession, they got the ball in the Beavers' red zone once again, but couldn't convert the fourth-and-1 from the 21-yard-line after a run from Spencer McInnis was cut short. However, St. Mary's didn't roll over. Dylan Zerki intercepted a pass off a trick play late in the second quarter at his own 14-yard line, ending a potential scoring drive from Harper Creek.
"James Ross was taken out of the game at one point, he was roughed up and Zerki was outstanding in the middle for us," Eaglets head coach George Porritt said. "We had trouble running the ball a few times and we shot ourselves in the foot a few times, and our defense made up for it."
The defense stepped up again and again in the second half. After a drive ending with a Niemiec fumble, the Eaglets responded by forcing a turnover on downs deep in their own territory. After Clements was intercepted for the third time, the defense forced another turnover on downs.
The Beavers had their greatest chance to score a second touchdown late in the fourth quarter. After Carson converted a third-and-5 from the St. Mary's 15-yard-line, the Eaglets held Harper Creek to a field goal from 27 yards out. With 3:22 left in the game, the stage was set for the game-winning drive.
"Gotta keep your poise. We need a game-winning drive. That’s what it comes down to. In games like this — this is a big-time team we played out there today — your defense has got to step up and that’s what we did," Porritt said.
The Eaglets will go to the state finals for the eighth time in 13 years. Although they may not be playing the team they'd like — five-time defending champion East Grand Rapids was beaten by Mount Pleasant in the other semifinal game — they'll take it.
"It’s all about the team, we’re a family here and that’s the only thing that matters around here," Niemiec said. "We had to score. It was mandatory. We couldn’t be stopped."
Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 14, Battle Creek Harper Creek 10
OLSM – 7 0 0 7 – 14
BCHC – 7 0 0 3 – 10
OLSM: Niemiec 2 run (Parry kick)
BCHC: Bauserman 9 pass from Black (Fisher kick)
BCHC: Fisher 27 field goal
OLSM: Niemiec 11 run (Parry kick)
OLSM: S. McInnis 20-76, P. McInnis 5-30, Niemiec 21-129, Clements 2-31. Totals: 48-266.
OLSM: Clements 8-18-81-3.
OLSM: Niemiec 1-8, Ross 1-31, Watts-Jackson 4-34, S. McInnis 2-8.
OLSM: 11-2 (4-0 Catholic Central).