By Jef Rietsma
WATERVLIET – Schoolcraft High School’s varsity football team struggled for most of Friday’s Division 6 district-title game to stop opposing quarterback Luke Traver.
No matter, the Eagles left Berrien County with a 28-26 win thanks to what boiled down to a trio of game-changing plays:
*Phil Pelton’s interception and return for a touchdown proved to be the game-winning score for the Eagles. The pick-off came with just under four minutes to play in the game.
*Needing a two-point conversion to tie the game at 28-all with less than two minutes to play, Watervliet saw its attempt swatted down by Schoolcraft’s Brennan Vaughn.
*The Panthers’ last-gasp effort to score in the final seconds had momentum until Pete Schultz nabbed an interception to secure the Eagles’ tenth win of the season. The interception was forced when linesmen Carter Fowler and Cody Mikel hit Traver as he released the ball, causing the pass to be underthrown.
For Schoolcraft, it was a 48-minute roller-coaster ride that extends its season into a twelfth week. The 10-1 Eagles travel to Shelby to take on the Tigers at 1 p.m. Saturday.
The fact Schoolcraft remains in the playoffs after Friday’s aerial clinic by Traver is notable, as Watervliet’s quarterback completed 38 of 49 pass attempts for a mind-boggling 460 yards.
“We knew he was good, but he played better than what we had seen on any of the two game films we had studied,” Schoolcraft Head Coach Terry Haas said. “We don’t see that kind of an offense in our run-dominated league, so this was a test for our defense and they hung in there long enough to win it for us.”
Traver’s touchdown passes of 23 and 5 yards put the Panthers up, 12-0 early in the second quarter before Schoolcraft answered with two scores of its own to knot the game at 12-12 at halftime.
Josh Zemek’s second-quarter runs of 5 and 4 yards accounted for Schoolcraft’s first-half scoring. The second of the two touchdowns came late in the half, when Zemek intercepted a pass and returned the ball to Watervliet’s 16 yard line to set up the tie score.
The teams combined for three missed extra-point-kick attempts and one failed two-point conversion in the first 24 minutes.
Schoolcraft took its first lead of the game three minutes into the third quarter, when Mikel reached the end zone on a 17-yard run. Zemek’s two-point conversion put the Eagles up, 20-12.
Watervliet would tie it at 20 with a score in the fourth quarter. The deadlock would remain until Pelton’s interception and touchdown return on a bobbled pass.
Haas said his team’s defense had to adjust to a no-huddle, up-tempo offense employed by Watervliet.
“They spent a lot of the night chasing down (Traver), so they had a good workout,” Haas said. “But in the end, defense wins championships and I preach that all the time.”
Haas said it was an especially memorable night for senior Charlie Schultz, who turned 18 years old Friday.
Haas said he also felt good about Vaughn and his role in breaking up Watervliet’s two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game late in the fourth quarter.
“Brennan was pretty down about missing the two extra-point attempts early in the game … he had only missed one all year,” Haas said. “So, he got redemption and that two-point conversion attempt was a big moment.”
The win advances Schoolcraft to its deepest post-season run since the 14-0 state-champion team of 2001. The Eagles, whose only loss this season was to co-league champion Olivet in Week 3, bowed out in the Week 11 district title game last year to Constantine, 40-27.
Shelby, meanwhile, is a 10-1 team with its only loss to Spring Lake, 27-0, in the final Friday of the regular season. The school is located in Oceana County, halfway between Ludington and Muskegon.
Haas said he and his coaches will spend Sunday looking at game film of Shelby, a squad he admitted he doesn’t know much about. The game against the Tigers was originally scheduled to take place Friday, but Haas said considering the 130-mile distance, he objected to a Friday game and was awarded the matinee game Saturday.