By Joseph Hayes
It was simply a special game.
The first playoff game in the history of the Port Huron-Port Huron Northern football rivalry wasn’t special just because it was the Big Reds and Huskies facing off.
It was a special encounter because the quality football that would ensue. The second match-up between the teams this season would prove to have a little bit of everything.
There were timely plays, like Port Huron High linebacker Caleb Collier’s game clinching interception with just seconds to play; and also clutch plays along the way that would all culminate with Port Huron defeating Northern, 27-21, at Memorial Stadium.
Port Huron (7-3) advances to face St. Clair Shores Lakeview next week. Northern ends the season (8-2).
“Give credit to Northern,” Port Huron Coach Ryan Mullins said. “That’s a great team. To go 8-1 in the regular season is a great season and I have a lot of respect for what they have done.”
The game marked the first time both schools have been in the playoffs the same year. It so happened they would play each other in the Division 2 pre-district round.
Port Huron never trailed in the game, but likely never felt comfortable either, as Northern kept pace with its best player Braiden McGregor on crutches on the sidelines after recently having surgery.
The last time the teams met, McGregor was injured, during the Crosstown Showdown when Northern prevailed, 29-26.
It wasn’t until the final seconds Friday that Mullins would get to exhale, after Collier intercepted Northern quarterback Seth Klink on fourth down near the Port Huron end zone.
Two plays earlier, Collier had dropped a would be game clinching interception. But he quickly made amends.
“I was upset, because I had seen the ball and it just came off my hands, right off my chest,” Collier said. “I knew the game wasn’t over. I have to keep focusing.
“Two plays later, I see the ball coming down, I got to secure it. I put my hands underneath, I lock it up and I have it. It was one of the best moments I’ve had playing football.”
On the previous drive, facing their own fourth down, Port Huron quarterback Phil MacKay connected with Dawson Leffler on a 27 yard game winning touchdown pass on fourth and three with 1:07 left to play. The point after attempt failed but the score broke a tie and Port Huron led, 27-21.
Port Huron initially led 14-0, and 21-7; before Northern surged back into the game to tie the score at 21-21.
The touchdown to Leffler gave Port Huron the go ahead score it needed to keep Northern at bay.
“The character of our team and the resilience of our team was that we keep playing until the clock hits zero,” Northern coach Larry Roelens said. “They missed the PAT and the kids are like we have a shot now to win it and it came down to a 4th and 3 and we threw it up and they came down with it.
“It was another great high school football game. Our seniors did a great job. It’s probably the best three year stretch in Northern history. The have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Northern quarterback Seth Klink was nine of 31 passing for 141 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He led Northern on the ground with 13 carries for 66 yards.
Northern running back Theo Ellis Jr. returned to the lineup after missing the previous two games with an ankle injury. Ellis Jr. ran hard but finished with 14 carries for 27 yards and still appeared hampered with the injury.
After the game he said: “I’m thankful for everything that has happened and to be a part of Northern football.”
Evan Radatz had four catches for 87 yards and a score for Northern. James Delong has several clutch plays for Northern, including a huge diving interception, and several big returns.
MacKay would finish the game 6 of 21 passing for 104 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions for Port Huron. He scored on an 11 yard touchdown run to give Port Huron a 21-7 lead in the third quarter.
Luke VanDerFeyst led Port Huron with 23 carries for 98 yards.
Turnovers proved to be a huge difference, with Northern muffing two punts, the last of which set up the go-ahead score.
Port Huron got off to a 14-0 with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Phil MacKay to Nijere Finney and a 44 yard touchdown on a screen pass to Luke Van Der Feyst.
Port Huron missed the initial point after attempt but made up for it with the conversion after their second score and led 14-0 after the first quarter.
Northern began to find its groove in the second quarter, as Klink found Radatz on a 24 yard touchdown pass and trailed 14-7 at halftime.
Port Huron started fast once again in the second half when MacKay scored on the 11-yard run.
But Klink scored on the ground from a yard out to bring Northern within 21-14 entering the fourth quarter.
Once there, Northern tied the game at 21-21 on a 6-yard run from Klink and Northern appeared to have the momentum.
“It was a game of big plays,” Nijere Finney said after hauling in two important interceptions. “We had to continue playing. They were going to make their big plays and we were going to make our big plays. We had to keep our composure. The sky is the limit for our team.”
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