With an eye toward the goal line and the score tied, the Orchard Lake St. Mary's varsity football team gambled and won on fourth down with a running play up the middle to keep the drive alive against Auburn Hills Avondale.
Then, they did it again.
The defending Div. 3 state champion Eaglets utilized their ground attack to near-perfection on a crisp Saturday afternoon at home to beat Avondale, 49-14, for the district championship.
Senior fullback Grant Niemiec, who led the way with 152 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, scored a go-ahead touchdown on fourth-and-one from the Avondale 1-yard-line in the second quarter to take the lead, 14-7.
The Eaglets converted two previous fourth-down conversions on the 16-play, 60-yard drive, which Yellowjackets head coach Steve Deutsch later said defined the game.
"We had 'em in fourth down situations a few times and gosh dog it, we just couldn’t get it. They made plays on fourth down when they needed to," said Deutsch. "They have great size, but we have size, too. We’re not used to seeing that size week in and week out. After a while, it definitely took its toll."
On the ensuing possession, the Eaglets secondary came up with an interception, which led to another touchdown before halftime. Facing third-and-23 on his own 27-yard-line, Avondale senior quarterback Spencer Smith was intercepted on a deep pass up by senior safety Brad Harris.
Niemiec struck again on the very next play, plowing up the middle of the field off of several defenders en route to a 47-yard touchdown run. The extra point from Eaglets senior Paul Graham gave St. Mary's a 21-7 lead with less than a minute remaining in the quarter.
"That was huge, to get that big play right before the half, to get that two-touchdown lead," Eaglets head coach George Porritt said. "It's a senior line, senior running backs, they’re tough kids and they do a good job getting those plays."
Eaglets move on to regional final
The Yellowjackets were persistent, but St. Mary's kept focus through a strong second half. The Eaglets forced a three-and-out possession on Avondale's first drive, leading to a punt which gave junior wide receiver Jalen Watts-Jackson a short field. Watts-Jackson took the punt 45 yards, dodging Yellowjackets defenders all the way to the end zone.
"We had to make some big plays there in the third period and we finally did. We made some big plays and that helped us," Porritt said.
Avondale's struggle passing the ball returned on the ensuing possession, when Smith was intercepted for the second time by Eaglets senior linebacker Sean Harrington, who took the ball to Avondale's 32-yard-line. Two plays later, St. Mary's senior quarterback Matt Linehan caught the Yellowjackets off-guard with a fake handoff and found junior tight end Nathan Conrad open for a touchdown, pushing the score to 35-7.
A furious finish to the third quarter ensued when Parker McInnis, the St. Mary's senior running back who finished with 93 yards on the ground, scored on the Eaglets' next offensive possession with less than a minute remaining. Avondale's senior tailback Michael Johnson returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, bringing the score to 42-14 and breathing life into a packed visiting student section.
"He’s a hell of a kid and I’m going to miss him," Deutsch said of Johnson. "You can’t find a better character kid. That’s one thing about high school, you hate to see kids leave. He’s going to go play on Saturday somewhere."
With just seconds left in the third quarter, Niemiec scored again — this time from 43 yards out — to bring the score to 49-14.
St. Mary's (9-2, 3-1 Catholic Central) now awaits the winner of a Saturday night clash between St. Clair and Detroit East English. The team that advances will visit Orchard Lake next Saturday afternoon, Nov. 10, in the regional final.
Deutsch said that it was a tough end to an otherwise-successful season for Avondale (9-2, 6-1 Oakland Blue). "As far as these guys, I’m as proud as can be. Their goal was not just to win a playoff game, they wanted to go further. It started back last November. This senior class has been outstanding."