By RON DEUTER
MARQUETTE - Forest Park's bid to return to a state football final for the eighth time since 2000 came up short Saturday morning at the Superior Dome.
Theresa Proudfit/The Daily News Photos
Forest Park’s Austin Snell (28) slips the tackle of Beal City’s Alex Schafer (15) in Saturday’s MHSAA Division 8 football state semifinal at the Superior Dome. Beal prevailed 34-18 in the battle of unbeatens.
The Trojans, uncharacteristically losing three fumbles in the second half, fell to Beal City 34-18 in a MHSAA Division 8 state semifinal.
"I felt that we played pretty much straight up with Beal City," Forest Park head coach Bill Santilli said. "We just coughed the ball up too many times."
Forest Park's turnovers made the going easy for the potent Beal City offense. Aggies quarterback Kurt Gross completed 12-of-20 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns. Ryan Tilmann caught six of those balls for 118 yards and one score.
"They've got a super football team," Santilli said. "They're definitely the best program we faced all year. I wish them well in their journey for a state championship."
The Trojans held a 6-0 lead after scoring on their second possession of the game when an undefended Austin Snell lined up wide right and easily caught a toss from Jeff Johnson for a 1-yard touchdown.
Beal City, struggling to establish its ground game early, was stopped on its first two drives of the game. But two touchdowns in 20 seconds in the second quarter turned the tide.
Ty Rollin got the Aggies on the board by finishing a seven-play 55-yard drive with a one-yard push into the end zone. Following the touchdown and extra point, Beal City recovered a squib kick that bounced off a Forest Park receiver's chest. Two plays later Rollin took a screen pass from Kurt Gross and went 36 yards for the score.
"Beal City is a quick-striking team, and we saw it in the films that we had," Santilli said. "What they do when they score is try to get the ball back, and when they do they take a chance by going to the end zone. I give them credit they have the personnel that can do it."
Forest Park tried to pull even before half, driving from their own 20 into the red zone in the final minute. The Trojans tried a pass to the end zone, but came up empty. Then the Aggies buckled down and dropped Johnson behind the line of scrimmage on consecutive plays to end the half.
A 33-yard Gross to Tillman connection on the first offensive play of the third quarter had the Aggies rolling right away in the second half. Gross capped that drive with a six-yard toss to Carson Salisbury. A kick by Rollin made it 21-6.
Lee Graff, who led the Trojans with 120 yards on 24 carries, lost the football on Forest Park's very next offensive touch. Beal City was quick to answer, but a holding penalty nullified a 35-yard touchdown run by Hayden Huber, and Forest Park escaped damage.
The Trojans then moved into Aggies territory again. Graff picked up first downs with nine and 14-yard runs. A third carry in the drive went for 15 yards down to the Aggie 32, but the ball popped out of Graff's arms.
Beal City didn't waste the chance, going 83-yards on eight plays. Gross pegged Tilmann for a 23-yard scoring strike, and Rollin's kick made 27-6 late in the third.
As the game entered the final quarter, Forest Park was knocking on the door again. Graff and Snell, who rushed for 74 yards on 12 trips, had the Trojans first and goal from the one. Graff got the call, but was met hard at the line and lost the ball once more.
"I haven't seen Lee Graff turn over the ball like that all season long," Santilli said. "He's been our go-to guy. It's just one of those things.
"You try what you do best and sometimes it doesn't work because of the ability of your opponent, and that's what happened today."
A six-yard run by Raymond Tomasik gave Forest Park its second touchdown with 5:55 to play. A nice 22-yard grab by Daniel Nocerini helped the Trojans midway through that drive.
Beal City answered however, as Luke Farrell broke through the Trojans defense for a 20-yard score.
"Unfortunately for us, I think fatigue was a major factor," Santilli said. "Most all of our guys are playing both ways. I thought we were half a step slow in the second half into the fourth quarter."
Forest Park's final points came on the last play of the game. The Trojans drove down to the six yard line during the game's last two minutes.
Johnson was picked off on a throw to the right side of the end zone as time expired, but a penalty on the Aggies gave Forest Park one untimed play. Johnson then went to left side, throwing up a jump ball. Nocerini went up between two defenders to make the catch at the back of the end zone.
"I thought we could play with them,"Santilli said. "Our guys played their hearts out. This was a whale of season for us this year. We've got nothing to be ashamed of, and with four sophomores and one freshman starting on this team, good things are still in the future."
Whether that future includes Santilli remains to be seen. Rumors have been circulating for the past couple of months that Santilli was considering retirement following the conclusion of the season.
"I have been proud to represent our school our community as their football coach," he said. "That'll never change. I've got the greatest moments of my life that money can't buy and I can't sell. I'll take that with me in my final steps. This group has made me proud as has every other group ahead of them.
"I'm not sure what the future holds at this point."
Beal City (13-0) moves on to state title game Friday at Ford Field against Muskegon Catholic Central (11-2) which defeated New Lothrop 45-14 in the other D8 semifinal.
Beal City is back in the final from a second straight season, falling 35-10 to Harbor Beach in last year's championship.
"We had some big plays today that overcame a lot of things," said Aggies coach Lou Rau, mentioning that he thought his team could have played a lot better, especially early in the game. "We knew Crystal Falls was going to give us a game. We also know that coming up here is just a pain in the rear. It's tough to play up here, drive all that way, stay in a hotel. It's difficult when you have to go that far.
"I'm very proud of these guys."
Beal City 0 14 13 7 - 34
Forest Park 6 0 0 12 - 18
FP - Austin Snell 1 pass from Jeff Johnson (run failed), 2:33.
BC - Ty Rollin 1 run (Rollin kick), 4:48.
BC - Rollin 36 pass from Kurt Gross (Rollin kick), 4:28.
BC - Carson Salisbury 6 pass from Gross (Rollin kick), 9:59.
BC - Ryan Tilmann 23 pass from Gross (kick missed), 2:22.
FP - Raymond Tomasik 6 run (pass failed), 5:55.
BC - Luke Farrell 20 run (Rollin kick), 2:50.
FP - Daniel Nocerini 6 pass from Johnson (no attempt), 0:00.
Total yards - Beal City 386 (191 run, 195 pass); Forest Park 332 (221 run, 111 pass).
Rushing leaders - BC: Hayden Huber 12-87, Ty Rollin 13-51; FP: Lee Graff 24-120, Austin Snell 12-74.
Receiving leaders - BC: Ryan Tilmann 6-118,Ty Rollin 2-39, Chase Salisbury 3-23; FP: Austin Snell 3-51, Daniel Nocerini 2-28, Jeff Johnson 1-22.
Passing - BC: Kurt Gross 12-20-195-3-0; FP: Jeff Johnson 6-9-89-2-0; Lee Graff 1-1-22-0-0.
First downs - BC: 13; FP: 19.
Penalties - BC: 3-25; FP: 5-30.