SSC wins in spectacular comeback fashion
CHEBOYGAN — Standish-Sterling's football playoff run had as much life left as a buck in the crosshairs on Saturday, Nov. 15.
The Panthers trailed Gladstone 26-0 at halftime of their Division 5 regional championship game. But by the time Trevor Trombley scored on an 8-yard run, off of a fake field goal with 1.9 seconds to play, SSC had rallied for a 40-33 victory that left Gladstone with the look of a deer in the headlights of an oncoming semi.
SSC (12-0) advances to its first ever state semifinal contest Saturday, Nov. 22, at Midland Community Stadium, where the Panthers take on Ovid-Elsie.
It was an epic comeback of astonishing proportion, considering how dominant Gladstone had been in the first half. Before Saturday, SSC had trailed this season for a total of less than 15 minutes, and never by more than seven points. Coming from behind was something they simply hadn't had to do all year.
The Panthers not only trailed by four touchdowns, they had been out gained 342-41 in the first 24 minutes, showed no signs of handling Gladstone's huge offensive line and hadn't been able to tackle bruising fullback Bruce Anderson or fleet-footed quarterback Kyle Jensen. Panther quarterback Austin Collier was struggling with a sprained ankle and couldn't run, SSC's receivers were slipping and sliding on Cheboygan's loose turf, and the defense lacked its usual aggressiveness. Even the one play that worked -- Trombley's 65-yard touchdown on the Panthers' first play from scrimmage -- went for naught thanks to an SSC penalty.
And yet there it was: 40-33, Standish-Sterling, an outcome that even as the Panthers still trailed in the fourth quarter, seemed as inevitable as the result of deer vs. truck, against a Gladstone defense that hadn't surrendered a point in 10 quarters of playoff football.
"The big thing was the hearts of the kids," said SSC coach Paul Walderzak. "It would have been easy to say it was time for basketball season, but they kept fighting.
"I don't want to put Gladstone down in any way. They were tough, feisty and disciplined, I have great respect for them, but right now, I have a lot more respect for my guys."
The Panthers had tied the score with 2:27 remaining on Collier's 3-yard dive, then held Gladstone to three-and-out, leaving 1:29 to go 68 yards.
SSC moved quickly and efficiently: a 15-yard pass from Collier to Mark Lorence, a 9-yard pass to Cole Walderzak, another 8-yard pass to Lorence, Collier's 15-yard run out of bounds to stop the clock, and an 18-yard screen pass to Casey Potts to give the Panthers a first down at the 8-yard line with 13 seconds left.
SSC survived a brief scare when a Gladstone lineman nearly intercepted Collier, then set up for an apparent field goal attempt on third down with 7.9 seconds left.
"We'd practiced (the fake field goal) three or four times this week," Collier, the holder on field goals, said. "We knew before (Gladstone) called time out that we'd run the touch and go."
"We figured if we did the fake, if we didn't make it there would be enough time to (actually) try the field goal," Walderzak said.
Collier took the snap, spun and ran past the line of scrimmage, then pitched back to Trombley, who headed for corner of the end zone.
"It seemed like it took forever (to get there)," Trombley said. "But I think it would have been scarier to kick the field goal."
Trombley shook off one tackle, spun through another and slipped just inside the end zone pylon for the game-winner with 1.9 seconds left.
"I was just jumping for joy," Collier said. "This was a great accomplishment. It's the first time in school history (to win a regional title). I'm really happy for Coach Walderzak, too, because he's such a great coach."
SSC still had to survive Gladstone's last attempt from near midfield, but with just three defenders rushing Jensen, Josh Augustine and Brad Sobieray pulled him down for the sack before he could get a pass off.
"This (feeling) is hard to explain," Walderzak said. "I feel great for these kids ... Their hope, desire and discipline hasn't waned (all season)."
SSC held nothing back in staging a turnaround that only they the Panthers themselves saw coming. The fake field goal was only the last of three trick plays they successfully executed, two of which went for touchdowns. They also pulled off a comparatively mundane onside kick that set up the game-tying score, forced two turnovers and racked up more than 400 yards of offense in the second half, including a 280-1 edge in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers needed to start quickly in the second half if they wanted any shot to get back in the game. And after a fruitless first half, they got just what they needed: an eight-play, 63-yard drive that included Collier's longest run of the day (33 yards) and ended in Trombley's 2-yard plunge.
"In the locker room, we just regrouped," Collier said. "We knew we couldn't go out like that.
"(The first drive) was big. We were pumped up coming out of the locker room and needed something to show for it. Then we knew we had the momentum, we just didn't know if we had enough time to get it back."
What they needed was a turnover, and Jacob Bialobrzeski obliged, forcing a fumble on the ensuing kickoff return that the Panthers recovered on the Gladstone 24.
Mark Lorence, who caught just one pass in the first half, made two huge fourth-down grabs on that drive, fighting for first-down yardage on the first and making a leaping grab in the end zone just before getting hit in mid-air, cutting the Gladstone lead to 26-13.
That started a run of near-perfection for Collier. Beginning with the first 4th-and-9 play, he completed 17 of his final 20 passes for 222 yards over the game's final 18 minutes. He finished 21-of-31 for 259 yards, two touchdowns and an interception and rushed for 81 yards on 16 carries.
"The offensive line (Gulvas, Brett Blakley, Derek Fenwick, Matthew Ekdahl, Trevor Karbowski and some key fourth-quarter play by Augustine) just really stepped up," Collier said. "They played the game of their lives in the second half."
Walderzak added 51 yards on six catches and Fouchey had 69 yards on three grabs. Trombley's numbers belied his impact: 10 rushes for 22 yards and two catches for 53.
Lorence, too, seemed to be in the middle of everything from that point and finished with 10 catches for 124 yards.
He also intercepted a pass to end Gladstone's next drive -- the lone drive on which the Braves picked up a first down in the second half -- and followed that up by throwing a 56-yard touchdown pass to Trent Fouchey after taking a lateral from Collier on the first play of the fourth quarter. He also pitched to Potts for a 31-yard gain after taking a 10-yard pass from Collier on the Panthers' successful hook-and-lateral midway through the fourth.
"Both of those trick plays we'd practiced all year," Lorence said. "We just needed to have the right time to use them.
"That was pretty nerve-wracking, but we knew what we had to do. We'd worked too hard to let it slip away. We were a better team than (in the first half)."
Fouchey's score cut the Gladstone lead to 26-19, but the Braves' Charlie Pfotenhauer returned the ensuing kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown and a 32-19 advantage.
"That kick return was pretty special," Walderzak said. "That hasn't happened to us in a long time."
When Gladstone's Cody Darling picked off Collier on the Panthers' next drive, the comeback hopes were in serious trouble. But that was when the SSC defense locked down, holding the Braves to one yard on their next series and forcing a punt.
The Panthers took six plays to go 80 yards on their next drive, with Trombley taking a screen pass, breaking several tackles and racing 47 yards for the score. Trombley's PAT kick (he made 4-of-5 in the game) cut it to 33-26 with 5:18 left.
"There were about two or three guys on me that I got away from," Trombley said. "I think another one bounced off me."
"I felt like we were back in it when we got back within two (scores)," Casey Potts said. "I felt like if we could score again it would be our ball game."
When Adam Gulvas recovered Lorence's onside kick, it seemed as though it was just a matter of time. SSC took nine plays to cover 46 yards, with Collier, sore ankle and all, running on each of the final three plays and diving into the end zone to tie it with 2:27 left and setting up the frantic final minutes.
The first half went entirely Gladstone's way, starting from the Braves' game-opening 14-play, 84-yard drive. Anderson's 2-yard run up the middle gave the Gladstone the first lead with 6:12 left.
The Braves needed just six plays to go 74 yards on their next drive as Jensen hit Andy Lauscher with a 13-yard scoring pass and a 14-0 lead.
Kollin Jensen's halfback option pass to Lauscher for a 22-yard score capped a six-play 69-yard drive with 11:23 left in the half, though the extra point hit the upright to keep it at 20-0.
The Panthers, desperate to get back in the game, were stopped on a 4th-and-1 at their own 36 late in the second half, setting up a Gladstone six-play drive that ended on Anderson's 13-yard run. Kyle Jensen set the score up with a 22-yard scamper on 4th-and-8.
Jensen finished with 162 yards on 25 carries and threw for 121 yards on 9-of-15 passing. Anderson added 88 yards on 12 attempts.
Needless to say, the Panthers' first half performance made for an interesting halftime.
"In one room was a strategy meeting," Walderzak said. "In the other room, there was a different kind of strategy going on."
"We got in there," Trombley said, "and Collier and Gulvas got going and got us motivated."
"Everyone was down at first," Potts said. "But there was a sense of knowing that it wasn't over. We knew we hadn't seen our team play the way it can."
Once they did, there was only one word left to describe the Panthers' comeback for the ages.
Numbers that tell the tale
Gladstone's edge in total offense in the first half
Standish-Sterling's edge in total offense in the fourth quarter
Points scored by Standish-Sterling through the first 26 minutes of play
Points scored by Standish-Sterling in the final 5:19
4th-and-9 plays converted on passes from Austin Collier to Mark Lorence, including one for a touchdown, on the drive that cut the Gladstone lead to 26-13.
Trick plays converted by Standish-Sterling in the fourth quarter. The Panthers gained 97 yards on a wideout option pass, a hook-and-lateral and a fake field goal, the last of which ended in the game-winning score with 1.9 seconds left.