Warriors nearly pull off comeback, but can't rally past Panthers

Warriors nearly pull off comeback, but can't rally past Panthers

DeKALB — It was difficult to say Tuscola was the lesser team in Friday's Class 1A state championship football game against Lena-Winslow.

The scoreboard technically indicated it, as the Panthers won their third title in a 21-20 thriller over the Warriors.

Most everything else suggested a different result was entirely possible. It simply came down to various singular moments that went against Tuscola (13-1).

Warriors coach Andy Romine wasn't about to downplay his opposition's success, though.

"I feel like we have a really good football team," Romine said after his squad fell short of its own third state crown. "I thought it was a just a great game. I'm not going to say (we were better) and discredit them."

But what if senior receiver/defensive back Noah Pierce hadn't been sidelined most of the game with what coach Andy Romine deemed a left foot fracture?

What if the Panthers (14-0) hadn't ripped off two plays of more than 70 yards?

What if Tuscola hadn't botched an extra-point snap late in the third quarter when a conversion would have tied the game?

Tuscola will never know what these hypotheticals could have meant. Instead, the Warriors will deal with the burn of missing out on 1A's top trophy by the slimmest of margins.

"I thought it was a really good high school football game," Romine said. "They're probably the most satisfying types to win and the most heartbreaking types to lose."

The two sides engaged in a sloppy first quarter, with both parties fumbling once apiece over the first three possessions.

Neither side could take advantage of those turnovers, but Tuscola hit the scoreboard after starting its second possession from the Lena-Winslow 31. After a pass interference call against the Panthers, senior Andrew Erickson rumbled five yards for a first-quarter score and an early 7-0 lead.

Erickson finished with 73 yards on 12 carries, but not much worked for the Warriors after their first touchdown.

"They punched us first, and we came back in the second quarter and had a great second quarter," Lena-Winslow coach Ric Arand said.

Senior quarterback Ty Chrisman hooked up with sophomore tight end Isaiah Bruce on a 72-yard screen pass for a late first-quarter score and tied the game.

Then, Pierce could not play through his injury any longer.

"Not seeing him next to me on the field hit me a little harder than I expected it would," said senior receiver/defensive back Dalton Hoel, who recovered Lena-Winslow's early fumble. "Everybody wanted to get that win for him."

That was followed by two Panther second-quarter touchdowns — one on a 76-yard scamper from senior Rahveon Valentine and the other on a Valentine 22-yard plunge — to give Lena-Winslow a 21-7 lead.

"I felt like if we tackled well in the secondary, we'd be in really good shape," Romine said. "In the first half we did it, but not consistently enough. (Valentine) got loose on a couple plays where we thought we had hats on him, and he made a nice little run."

Tuscola got to work offensively once a gusty wind was at its back in the third quarter.

After forcing a Lena-Winslow punt, junior quarterback Luke Sluder found Hoel on a 4-yard scoring toss.

Hoel tip-toed the sideline as he was falling out of bounds to trim Tuscola's deficit to 21-14. Then, after Valentine fumbled away the Panthers' next possession, senior tight end Cale Sementi hauled in a 5-yard touchdown just before the quarter ended.

A high snap on the extra-point bid after Sementi scored, however, changed the game. Hoel, the placeholder, said he felt he didn't have time to set the ball. The result was Chrisman tackling Hoel on the run, short of the end zone, and Tuscola staring at a 21-20 deficit.

"I can't believe they wouldn't kick it there," Arand said. "But give Ty credit. That's not a play you practice all the time, and he stepped up and made a great play against a great player."

The fourth quarter turned into a punting battle, before a dramatic final three minutes.

Sluder was intercepted by Lena-Winslow's Gaige Schwartz, setting up the Panthers at the Tuscola 28. One play later, Valentine fumbled back to the Warriors.

"One of the linebackers (junior Will Little) said they were going to get us on the field and give us one last drive, and they did that," Sluder said. "We just weren't able to finish it."

That hope ended after Sluder was stopped a yard shy of a first down inside the Panther 30, which was followed by a failed fourth-down pass with 10 seconds left.

"We make everything so stressful," Valentine said. "But we have that bend-don't-break mentality."So did the Warriors, who shut out the Panthers in the second half and nearly pulled off the program's third state championship since 2006.

"We couldn't just let them roll over (us) and say that they won," Erickson said. "No, we were going to fight as hard as we could until the last."

And no one will say the Warriors didn't do that. Though there were tears shortly after the loss, several Tuscola athletes were already fondly remembering what they'd just gone through.

"It was a good game all around," Hoel said. "I'm glad we're here, but obviously we'd prefer the score be reversed."