by Calli Newberry
After falling to Portland in the Division 5 State semifinal game three years ago, the Marine City High School football team got a chance to correct its history with a rematch on Saturday afternoon.
An interception by senior defensive back Ty Nelson on the opening drive set the tone for the Mariners uncompromising defense, which would force five turnovers in total en route to a 27-7 victory.
“You’re always hoping to try to force turnovers, some games you get none, and some days you’re able to put your helmet on the football in the right spot, and get some. The interception by Ty Nelson early on was huge,” head coach Daryn Letson said. “That’s just a credit to him and the scheme putting him in the right spot to make that play. He did a great job of going up at the high point of the ball and got us some momentum early there.”
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Nelson ran the ball 10 yards before being tackled at the Red Raiders’ 45-yard line. After a few steady runs by junior fullback Zach Tetler, junior quarterback Jeff Heaslip threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Parker Atkison. The kick by senior Shaelyn Haney was good to put Marine City ahead 7-0.
On the very first play of their second offensive drive, the Red Raiders fumbled the ball, forced by senior cornerback Kaden Chapman and recovered by Nelson. After an exchange of punts, the Mariners got the ball back with 4:15 remaining in the first quarter. They marched downfield 52 yards for another touchdown scored on the ground by senior wide receiver Charles Tigert to put his team ahead 14-0 to close out the quarter.
As the second quarter got underway, the Red Raiders were running out of options. They went for it fourth-and-7 and as their quarterback ran the ball far enough for the first down but Chapman chased him down and forced the fumble on the tackle. Tetler, in the right place at the right time, snatched the ball up and ran it back for six points.
“Let’s be honest, it takes a little bit of luck. It bounced in the perfect kid’s hands there with Tetler who was able to score that with a long touchdown run. That was huge because I believe that gave us a three-score lead,” Letson said. “All turnovers are huge, but that one was enormous in regards to giving us that three-score lead. Credit to the defense and our scheme.”
Any defense that can force three turnovers before halftime is a little more than lucky though, and Letson credits his coaching staff for their endless preparation to put their players in position to succeed like this.
“We have a turnover circuit in practice routinely and obviously it paid off there,” Letson said. “And hats off to the defensive staff for continuing to work on that and hats off to the kids to be able to take advantage of those things.”
With a 21-0 lead, things were looking pretty good for the Mariners. With four minute to go in the half, Portland managed to put its first points on the board with a three-yard rushing touchdown. Marine City headed into the locker room with a 21-7 lead and 24 minutes left to play before earning a trip to Ford Field for the State Championship.
Forced to punt after going three-and-out to start the third quarter, the Mariners managed to get the ball back after forcing yet another fumble. The Red Raiders defense was determined, however, forcing back-to-back three-and-out series.
Finally, Marine City picked up steam when Heaslip handed the ball off to Tigert who ran the ball 57 yards for the fourth and final touchdown of the game.
“Offensively, after we got out to that lead, our whole mindset was just not screw this up and put ourselves in vulnerable positions because our defense is doing a good enough job to basically win the game from here on out,” Letson said. “They were able to get a score and we were able to answer there with Charles’ long touchdown run. That was big. That’s a senior making a big play.”
Portland had the ball to start the fourth quarter, and just to punctuate the Mariners’ dominant defense, senior cornerback Scott Kretzchmar snagged one more interception and ran it back 20 yards. By then, 10 minutes remained and Letson said his team’s excitement grew on the sideline.
“It was amazing getting to the fourth quarter. I was just looking at the clock and it just seemed like the seconds just felt like hours coming off that clock. It wouldn’t run down fast enough,” he said. “Finally with about five minutes left or so, I turned around and looked at the sideline and you could just start to see those kids’ eyes, especially the young kids that had been brought up, you saw their eyes and see and feel that they knew this was happening at that point in time.”
Kretzchmar and senior tight end Wyatt Walker led the Mariners defense with nine and 11 tackles, respectively, while Tigert and Nelson each had eight. Offensively, Heaslip was 7-14 for 97 passing yards and one touchdown. Tigert had 104 yards rushing, accompanied by Tetler with 57, while Atkinson had 75 receiving yards.
Winning Saturday’s semifinal game gave Marine City a reason to be extra thankful as the team gets one more week to practice and play.
“We’re gonna have a great week of practice. We get to practice on Thanksgiving, how much better can that be? That’s always fun and then we’ll go enjoy dinner after. Then we’ll have one more practice Friday and we’ll be ready on Saturday,” Letson said. “There’s no doubt they’ll be focused. These kids have done a great job all year. They’re not going to waver from that this week, they’ll be focused for sure.”
The Mariners will enter the championship game with a perfect 13-0 record as they take on Grand Rapids Christian Central who also boasts a 13-0 record, as well as four State titles since 2016. Kickoff is set for Saturday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. in Ford Field.
“We know we’ve got a big monster ahead of us Saturday, but we’ve been able to do it before and we’re gonna work hard and see what we can do,” Letson said. “They haven’t won four of the last five by being slouches by any stretch of the imagination. It’ll be fun though, it’ll be a fun test. Heck, someone’s got to beat them, why not us?”