By Joseph Hayes
It was exactly what you would expect from two heavyweights with their sights set squarely on a state championship.
The Division 5 district final between Almont and Marine City at East China Stadium would surely come down to only a few game defining plays.
In the end, it would be Almont that would escape with a memorable, 22-20, Division 5 district championship at East China Stadium.
Almont advances to host Swan Valley, which defeated Frankenmuth, 21-7.
“We took it to them, we didn’t stay back on our heels and wait,” Almont coach James Leusby said.
“Every win is big for us. Our main goal is Ford Field. This is just one little goal setter. We will come back focused. We are hungry. We want more.”
Friday’s game between Almont and Marine City had nearly everything you could imagine. There were the fireworks you would come to expect in most playoff games, as Almont came out hot early and set a physical tone.
But there were also plenty of unforeseen things that would arise, including Marine City head coach Ron Glodich being ejected in the first half, in his final game with the Mariners after 33 years.
“It’s sad,” Leusby said. “When you are a legend of a game like he is, and you lead your team this far, it’s horrible. I feel awful.”
Glodich was unavailable for comment after the game.
Almont quarterback Josh Hellebuyck opened the scoring on a 1-yard run with just over two minutes remaining in the opening quarter, to give Almont an initial 6-0 lead after the point after attempt failed.
The Raiders defense would hold up well against the potent Mariners offense for much of the first half; as they limited Marine City on the ground.
Almont (11-0) would lead 6-0 entering the second quarter, despite Marine City (10-1) threatening in Almont territory.
Late in the first half however, Marine City quarterback Colby Walker found receiver Charles Tigert on a 62 yard score to bring the Mariners all of the way back and give Marine City a 7-6 advantage going into halftime.
Almont received the ball first in the second half and appeared to be recapturing the momentum. But Marine City stepped up big on defense and forced a turnover on downs deep in its own territory; and took over on its own 22.
The Mariners momentum would be short lived, however. The Raiders got one of their biggest plays of the game from linebacker Landon Kruse; as he intercepted Walker at the Marine City nine yard line to set up Almont’s next score.
Running back Mason Smith would score from three yards out and also scored the conversion attempt on the ground; and Almont quickly stole the momentum right back from the Mariners by capturing the lead; 14-7.
“It was a huge momentum swing,” Almont quarterback Josh Hellebuyck said. “It gave our team a big lift and really gave us a momentum boost.”
Now with the momentum, Almont did its best to contain the Mariners. But it wouldn’t be easy.
Tigert took the ensuing kick back for a score for the Mariners. But before Marine City could celebrate, the return was called off due to holding and Marine City would have to start its drive from its own territory.
But that wouldn’t stop the Mariners altogether. They kept picking away at the Raiders defense and ultimately was able to find the tying score on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Walker to Angelo Patsalis with seven minutes remaining in the game, to tie the score at 14-14.
On the ensuing possession, Almont would find a way to take the lead for good. After driving down the field, they got their biggest offensive play of the game on fourth down and one, from the Mariners 29 yard line with just under three minutes left in the game.
With everyone bracing for a quarterback sneak, Almont took the play off tackle and running back Jack Paupert scored nearly untouched from 29-yards out.
Almont also scored on the 2-point conversion and led 22-14 with 2:53 remaining.
As expected, the Mariners would not go away easily. They got a big return, coupled by an Almont personal foul penalty and was right back at midfield one play later.
Tigert scored for Marine City on the ground from three yards out with just 21 seconds remaining in the game, to bring the Mariners within 22-20. But Marine City was stopped on the ensuing conversion attempt, and that would be the difference.
After failing to recover the onside kick, they could only watch as Almont downed the ball one final time and began to celebrate the district title on the frozen field.
It was Almont’s first district title since 2014.
Joseph Hayes is the new Managing Editor at Blue Water Healthy Living. Hayes was previously at the Port Huron Times Herald and hosted a show on Power 88.3. He has additional experience at The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Jackson Citizen Patriot and WDFN 1130. Contact Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org