Behind big first half, Saline cruises past Pioneer to district title
Joseph Tobianski | AnnArbor.com
Saline jumped out to a two-touchdown lead in the first seven minutes, and cruised to a 31-17 win over Pioneer Friday night in a district title game.
The Hornets will now face defending state champion Detroit Cass Tech next week at home in a regional final.
Friday’s win marked the school’s second district championship, its other also coming against Pioneer in 2006.
The Hornets have never won a regional championship. This year marks the school’s first 10-win season.
The win was seven weeks in the making, as the Hornets were eager to avenge a Week 4 loss to Pioneer, 7-6, the team's only loss of the season.
“We had a chip on our shoulder from that week," Saline quarterback Tyler Palka said. "We wanted to play them again, and we knew that if we continued to work hard throughout the weeks that we’d get a chance to play them, to prove our point, prove our case that we’re the better football team.”
After going three-and-out on its first possession, the Hornets scored on three consecutive scoring drives, going 87, 51 and 81 yards.
All three drives were capped off by Kevin Gross touchdown runs from six, three and two yards out.
Saline racked up 132 yards of offense on its first two scoring drives in the first seven minutes. It allowed only 10 Pioneer yards in the same span.
“We finally played a complete game, what I think was almost a complete game, offensively, defensively and through special teams," Palka said.
After Pioneer went three-and-out on its first drive, Palka scampered 48 yards on a quarterback draw on the second play of the second drive. Following two other long runs in Pioneer territory, Gross scored four minutes into the game.
Pioneer quarterback Brandon Bertoia fumbled on his team's second drive, giving Saline the ball near midfield. Saline scored in six plays, with its first two touchdowns just three minutes apart.
“We came out and punched them in the mouth," said linebacker Caleb Ashby, who finished with 11 tackles and two sacks. "They didn’t know what to do. They were shell-shocked.”
From there, Saline scored on a 13-play, 81-yard scoring drive to go up three touchdowns. The drive was extended when, on its own 20-yard line, Saline committed a holding penalty on third down. Instead of declining and facing 4th and short, Pioneer coach Paul Test accepted and gave the Hornets a 3rd and 20 at their own 10.
Palka hit AJ Korzuck on a 30-yard fade route for a first down, and Saline marched 60 more yards in 10 plays to go up three scores.
"That might have been a wrong choice, but at the time, with field position, I have a lot of confidence on our defense," Test said.
For the game, Palka was 9-for-12 for 132 yards. Griffin Wooley led the Hornets with 78 yards rushing, and Gage Hammond had 51 rushing yards and 63 receiving yards on five catches.
After recording only 28 rushing yards in the two teams' first meeting, Saline set the tone early with more than 100 rushing yards on its first two scoring drives.
“We challenged our kids all week and said it’s not going to be a finesse game," Saline coach Joe Palka said. "If we’re going to win, we’re going to do it physically. That’s been our mantra all year, just continue to be physically tough and mentally tough, and I think the kids really took the challenge.”
Pioneer got on the board with two seconds left in the first half on a 44-yard Eric Kristensen field goal.
But the Pioneers fumbled on their own 20-yard line on the second play of the second half, and Hammond kicked a 38-yard field goal to extend the Hornets lead.
Pioneer turned the ball over four times, including two interceptions to Saline's Brandon Gordon.
“They outplayed us," Test said. "They kicked our butt tonight and they deserved to win.”
The Hornets put the cherry on top with 3:51 left in the game, when Hammond was lined up to punt, had the snap go over his head, only to chase it down to his own 20 and then rush 80 yards for the score with three minutes left in the game.
The Pioneers notched two late touchdowns, both from Marquise Thomas in the last three minutes of the game, from six and 25 yards out. Thomas finished with 186 yards on 26 carries.
The loss ends a tumultuous season for Pioneer, which included injuries to several key players and a Week 8 brawl with Huron that resulted in several suspensions.
But with Test suspended for the past two games, the Pioneers rallied to make the playoffs and qualify for a district final.
“They dealt with adversity pretty well this year," Test said. "They’ve been a good group.”