Football: Trojans edge Pickford, reach state final
PICKFORD — It seemed like whoever had the ball last was going to win.
Forest Park had it at the final whistle, and the Trojans are going to the state final. The Trojans held off the Pickford Panthers 36-34 in an eight-player Division 2 semifinal Friday night.
Moving the chains by pounding out a pair of game-sealing first downs, the Trojans kept the football for the final 6:56 to seal the win.
“Two equally matched teams tonight,” Forest Park coach Dave Graff said. “They were a very sound fundamental team that does things the right way. We went back and forth. When it came right down to it, we had to produce first downs to keep the clock winding. We did what we do best, running north and south. I give our guys a lot of credit, especially our offensive line, for closing out the win like they did.”
Pickford, which was ranked No. 1 in the state eight-player poll, finished the season 11-1.
“Our guys played tough all year long,” Pickford coach Josh Rader said. “I’m proud of them. It hurts right now, but when they look back and reflect on the season, they will have a lot of great memories.”
The game lived up to its billing as equal teams who both average over 50 points and more than 400 yards of offense per game. Weather conditions may have slowed the scoring some, but there was still plenty of offense on the snowy field, with temperatures dipping into the low teens.
Forest Park controlled the football and dominated time of possession. The Trojans ran 81 plays, compared to 29 for the Panthers. Peter Ropiak rambled for 183 yards on 34 carries and two touchdowns, while Connor Bortolini had 167 yards on 30 carries.
The Panthers hit plenty of big plays, always seeming to be within striking distance. Pickford 6-foot-7 sophomore Nick Edington was a matchup nightmare. He hauled in four catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
“Edington is one of those athletes that comes along every once in awhile that just causes mismatches for everybody,” Graff said. “Not only does he have the size, but you saw even when we covered him, he has a great set of hands. They sure have a lot of weapons on that Pickford team. A lot of backs, a good line, and the quarterback throws a nice ball.”
Edington collected a 29-yard TD pass from Jonah Bailey in the first quarter.
The Trojans answered with a 9-yard scoring run from Ropiak, which capped a 16-play, 72-yard drive.
Lane Warner scored on a 44-yard for the Panthers on the next series, still in the first quarter.
The Trojans also scored again just one play later, as Tommy Peltoma found a wide-open Jonah Logan on a pass, which turned into a 63-yard TD reception. Bortolini added a converion run to give the Trojans their first lead, 14-12.
After forcing the first punt of the game, the Trojans got the ball back and added to their lead. Peltoma capped a 12-play, 63-yard drive with a 1-yard scoring run. The Trojans took the 20-12 lead into halftime.
Ropiak scored on a 3-yard run in the third quarter and also added the conversion run to put the Trojans up 28-12.
The Panthers came back with their passing attack, as Bailey threw a 64-yard TD pass to Jimmy Storey late in the third quarter, and a 16-yard TD to Edington early in the fourth quarter, to get within 28-26.
Forest Park put together another long drive, marching 67 yards on nine plays, and finishing with Peltoma’s 3-yard TD run. Ropiak added a pivotal conversion run to make it 36-26 with 7:28 remaining.
Pickford’s Bailey to Edington combination hooked up again on the next series, with a 46-yard pass down to the Trojans’ 5-yard line. Bailey scored on a QB keeper from a yard out, two plays later. He also threw a conversion pass to Edington to get the Panthers within 36-34 with 6:56 to go.
Forest Park got the ball back, and didn’t let the Panthers have it again. The Trojans pounded out 15 running plays to grind out the clock, twice converting on fourth down, including one by the nose of the football at the Panther 23-yard line.
The Trojans ran for 406 yards on 78 carries, and added 91 yards passing. Peltoma was 3-for-3 for 91 yards. The Trojans won time of possession by a stagering 37:44 compared to 10:16.
“Offensive line is our strength, and our backs run hard,” Graff said. “Ropiak and Bortolini are such hard-nosed kids. When they get a little seem, they take advantage of it.”
Warner led the Panthers with 134 yards on eight carries, while John LaMothe had 45 yards on 10 attemps. Pickford had 181 yards rushing on 21 carries. Bailey was 5-of-8 passing for 159 yards and three touchdowns.
“We tried everything we could to make a defensive stand,” Rader said. “We wanted that ball back just one more time. If we could have had the ball back, who knows? But that’s football. We couldn’t stop them when we had to.”
“A lot of credit goes to Crystal Falls-Forest Park,” Rader said. “They are very well-coached. We knew it was going to be a battle in the trenches with them. It was a physical game, and turned out to be everything we expected.”
Forest Park (9-2) advances to the state championship game next Saturday against the winner of today’s semifinal between Kinde North Huron and Portland St. Patrick.
“We had so many questions to start this year,” Graf said. “We lacked speed, we lacked experience. We had freshmen and sophomores playing. But the kids practiced every day, every week to get better. Tonight, we saw the culmination of those efforts. This is the icing on the cake.”
— Rob Roos is the sports editor of The Evening News in Sault Ste. Marie.