By Jef Rietsma
WATERVLIET – Fans on both sides of the field were on their feet and yelling.
After more than 47 minutes of back-and-forth football, the fate of a District title boiled down to one play. Schoolcraft was five yards from the goal line and in need of a touchdown to potentially tie the game and force overtime.
On fourth and goal with 36 seconds left in the contest, Schoolcraft’s resilient sophomore quarterback Ricky Clark took the ball, stepped back and looked for a receiver. His options were few and in the milliseconds before his jersey was in the grasp of a Watervliet defenseman, Clark heaved a desperation pass into the end zone.
Clark was on the ground after releasing the ball, but knew the result of his toss based on the deafening roars from the Watervliet stands and the jubilant reaction of the opponents hovering around him.
On a cold, breezy November night not far from the Lake Michigan shoreline, with one final desperate lob, Schoolcraft’s 2014 football season ended with a 7-4 record.
In a Division 6 game that featured no shortage of an aerial assault and some momentum-changing turnovers, Schoolcraft fell, 28-21. For the second week in a row, a single play figured a substantial role in the final result.
Six days earlier in Constantine, it was a questionable call on a punt that officials ruled bounced into a Falcons player. Schoolcraft fell on the live ball and it scored the game-winning touchdown on the subsequent play.
At Watervliet Nov. 7, Schoolcraft found itself clinging to a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter. On fourth and 19 at its own 38, Schoolcraft sent Clark out to punt. A muffed snap, however, forced Clark to drop a knee to the ground in order to help secure the ball.
Clark made the punt but officials whistled the play dead once he had possession of the ball. By high school rule, the play was dead as Clark’s knee was down and Schoolcraft essentially turned the ball over on downs.
Watervliet was awarded the ball at the spot of the down and covered the 30-yard distance in five plays for the go-ahead score with just over five minute to play.
To be sure, the loss was far from Clark’s fault because of one play, coach Terry Haas was quick to note.
“We just made too many mistakes at critical times … we fumbled the ball once trying to take it in and the (botched) punt didn’t help,” Haas said. “Things like that happen. There’s nothing to be ashamed of because our kids played their hearts out.”
If anything, Clark was a one-man wrecking crew whose strong play on both sides of the ball kept the Eagles in the game.
Things got off on a good note for Schoolcraft, as Adam Marshall recovered Watervliet’s fumble on the third play of the game. The Eagles took advantage of the short, 20-yard field and scored in two plays, capped by Josh Zemek’s one-yard run following his 19-yard dash on the previous play.
On its subsequent possession, Schoolcraft squandered an opportunity to put the Panthers in a hole early. Aided by a 77-yard run by Clark, the Eagles were two yards from the end zone, but a fumble was recovered by Watervliet and returned to the 23-yard line.
The Panthers capitalized on the miscue, as they scored in 13 plays. A missed extra point, however, helped Schoolcraft retain a 7-6 lead after one quarter.
Schoolcraft extended its lead to 14-6 early in the second quarter, set up by senior Chadd Marks, who nabbed what was likely the easiest interception of his prep career on a head’s-up play.
In nine plays, Schoolcraft covered 37 yards and scored on a 10-yard run by Clark. The series was highlighted by Clark’s 11-yard run on a fourth-down play.
Despite a monster, eight-yard sack by Thomas Meadows on Watervliet’s subsequent series, the Panthers used 12 plays and plenty of passing to close its deficit to 14-12 at the half.
Watervliet’s Blake Kiekenapp, in fact, completed 25 of 35 passes for 242 yards. All three numbers are an anomaly at the high school level.
“We tried to stop their run and force them to pass and, obviously, they’re an excellent team at throwing the ball,” Haas said. “They’re used to doing that and they picked us a part a little bit.”
After giving up a third-quarter touchdown and falling behind, 20-14, Schoolcraft regained the lead, 21-20, on the first play of the fourth quarter with Clark’s one-yard run. The series included a 19-yard reception by Caleb Anspaugh, a 17-yard run by Clark on a fourth-down play in Watervliet’s territory and a 23-yard pass play by Zac Sharp.
Clark ended the night with 22 rushes for 156 yards and went seven for 22 for 114 passing yards. Sharp led all Schoolcraft receivers with four catches for 60 yards total.
On its final possession of the night, Schoolcraft converted on two fourth-down plays to keep alive its hopes for a potential tying score before running out of gas five yards short of the end zone.
Haas said Schoolcraft found itself going up against a team loaded with talented players and plenty of playmakers.
“It seemed like whoever they’d throw the ball to they’d make a big play out of it,” Haas said. “But you can’t load up on one person.”
Haas said with five sophomores, including Clark, on the varsity squad, he looks forward to the 2015 season. Haas, confirmed though he is retiring as a teacher, he plans to return to coach the Eagles next year.
The squads won’t have to wait long for a rematch, as they will be conference opponents in 2015.
Watervliet, 10-1, will play at 10-1 Grand Rapids North Pointe Christian next weekend.