By RON DEUTER
CRYSTAL FALLS - For the eighth time in the past 10 seasons, the Forest Park Trojans will play in a state football semifinal.
Theresa Proudfit/The Daily News Photos
Coach Bill Santilli’s Forest Park Trojans repulsed a challenge from Coach Joe Reddinger’s North Dickinson Nordics in a Division 8 football regional final Friday at Dick Mettlach Field. The Trojans and Mount Pleasant Beal City will meet in the state semifinals, with a date and site to be determined.
North Dickinson’s Noah Berg (25) runs past Forest Park defenders Friday.
Surviving an inspired comeback attempt by the North Dickinson Nordics, unbeaten Forest Park held on for a thrilling 24-20 MHSAA Division 8 regional title victory Friday evening at Dick Mettlach Field.
"That was just an outstanding high school football game," said Trojans coach Bill Santilli, who has coached the Trojans to wins in six of the previous seven state semifinals appearances. "It was just two evenly-matched teams. You can never breathe a sigh of relief with North Dickinson. They're so explosive. They just make plays."
North Dickinson, with Noah Berg hauling in six catches for 194 yards and three touchdowns, refused to go away even after falling behind 16-0 in the first half and 22-12 late in the third quarter.
Berg's third touchdown of the game, a quick-strike from Logan O-Neil on a crossing pattern that went for 71 yards, followed by a two-point reception, brought the Nordics within two at 22-20 late in the third.
But the big-play magic ran out on the final drive of the game, as Nordics' bid to reach the end zone for a game-winning score in the final seconds came up about 37 yards short.
"We just figured this game was going to come right down to the wire, and we're just very fortunate to win," Santilli said. "I can't say enough about both teams tonight."
North Dickinson wound up with two chances at a game-winning drive.
The first, after forcing a late punt out of Forest Park, began pinned at their own one yard line with 2:17 to play. O'Neil retreated into his own endzone to pass on a third and six but had nowhere to go with the ball. He flung a short pass into the turf and was flagged for intentional grounding. By rule, since the pass came from the end zone, Forest Park was awarded a safety.
But the Nordics took the ball right back with an onside kick recovered by Brad Gustafson. That gave ND the ball at their own 32 with 1:14 to play and one timeout. North Dickinson managed to pick up two first downs and cross midfield.
A delay of game penalty moved the drive back five yards, and with just 5.4 seconds left, on a fourth and 15 from the 47, O'Neil passed to Berg on a designed hook and ladder.
Berg flipped the ball to Matt Schultz along the left sideline, but there was no where for him to run and the game ended.
"All in all, I thought it was a great comeback," Nordics head coach Joe Reddinger said. "We just came up a little bit short."
Forest Park, held scoreless by the Nordics' defense on three drives in a row after taking a 16-0 lead at 9:18 of the second quarter, finally found traction in fourth quarter. A methodical nine-play, 52-yard march ate half of the fourth-quarter clock before Lee Graff crammed the line and extended the ball across the plane for his second touchdown of the game.
The drive seemed to finally put Forest Park over the top, but the Nordics responded on their very next play from scrimmage with the O'Neil connection to Berg. Berg was at full speed when he caught the perfectly-thrown ball and was never touched on his sprint to the end zone.
"Berg just had an awesome, unbelievable game," Reddinger said. "He's quite an athlete."
The third catch and run TD was probably Berg's easiest of the game. On his first score, Berg ripped the ball away from a defender and turned on the jets for a 69-yard score. His second was a jump ball battle in the end zone which he won for a 17-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.
"We had good coverage on him, covered him like a blanket," Santilli said. "Berg just made incredible plays on perfect passes."
Failed two-point tries on the first two North Dickinson touchdowns prevented the score from being tied as the game entered the fourth quarter.
Forest Park's ball control offense rode the legs of senior fullback Raymond Tomasik in the first half. He took 13 of his 15 carries in the first half, powering for 112 of his 117 yards before the break. Graff, go-to back in Forest Park's first two playoff wins, capped the first drive with a two-yard spin into the end zone.
A 37-yard Jeff Johnson pass to Austin Snell following a North Dickinson fumble accounted for the second score. Two-point runs by Snell and Tomasik pushed the margin to 16-0.
"I was shocked how many times they gave me the ball," Tomasik said. "I wanted to run and didn't want to go down. Our linemen did great tonight. It was a great, hard-fought victory."
Graff finished with 52 yards on 16 carries, 12 of those coming in the second half.
"We tried to mix it up a little bit," Santilli said. "Graff has been a workhouse. He had 33 carries against L'Anse. Tomasik is a bull too. He's a senior, a good leader for us. He had a whale of a game."
North Dickinson almost went down two scores before halftime, as Tomasik and Forest Park drove 66-yards on 12 plays only to come up an inch short on fourth down at the four.
"We were fortunate to stay in the game in the first half," Reddinger said. "We did a better job moving the ball in the second half. We made them do some things they didn't want to do."
Tim Hruska was limited to 47 yards on 11 carries, and Schultz had 44 on 13 trips for North Dickinson, which finished the season 8-3, setting the state record for most consecutive playoff appearances with 23.
"Everybody feels bad about losing, but we had a great year," Reddinger said.
Forest Park faces Beal City in next week's semifinal. Check Monday's Daily News for date, time and location.
"To make it to one more round is a great feeling for us," Santilli said. "I know our guys were really working hard all year, and this is their reward. We've had three tight playoffs games. We could have lost any one of these, and here we are, the cardiac kids. Maybe we got one more in us.
"The guys hung in there, believed in themselves, held their composure and beat a very good football team tonight."
North Dickinson 0 6 6 8 - 20
Forest Park 0 16 0 8 - 24
FP - Lee Graff 2 run (Austin Snell run), 11:56.
FP - Austin Snell 37 pass from Jeff Johnson (Raymond Tomasik run), 9:18.
ND - Noah Berg 69 pass from Logan O'Neil (Run failed), 7:45.
ND - Berg 17 pass from O'Neil (Run failed), 3:24.
FP - Graff 2 run (Pass failed), 6:07.
ND - Berg 71 pass from O'Neil (Berg pass from O'Neil), 5:51.
FP - Safety, 1:24.
Total Yards - North Dickinson 339 (109 rush, 230 pass); Forest Park 271 (234 rush, 37 pass).
Rushing leaders - ND: Tim Hruska 11-47, Matt Schultz 13-44; FP: Raymond Tomasik 15-117, Lee Graff 16-52, Austin Snell 9-46.
Receiving leaders - ND: Noah Berg 6-194; FP: Snell 1-37.
Passing - ND: O'Neil 12-15-230-3-0; FP: Johnson 1-6-37-1-0.
First downs - ND: 10; FP: 11.
Penalties - ND: 5-30; FP: 4-20.