By MIKE ECKERT
GRAYLING — Ty Jensen and Scott Parkinson grabbed a bucket of water after the final horn sounded and went to find Grayling coach Tim Sanchez.
The two Vikings seniors didn't get much water on their coach, but it started the celebration nonetheless.
For the first time in school history, Grayling beat former Lake Michigan Conference rival St. Francis on Friday with a 28-20 victory.
"It hit all of us," Jensen said. "This is probably the best experience in all of our lives and football careers. It was spectacular."
The win for Grayling (4-0) came after two narrow defeats to the Gladiators (2-2) over recent years. In 2010, St. Francis won 38-35 and then 20-19 last year.
"I'm at a loss for words," Sanchez said. "Ever since our first year here, they've been the pedestal to reach. So to be able to beat them tonight is kind of a culmination for our program and where we've come from. With my brother, Ben Brock, coming here and starting the tradition, and we finished it tonight.
"This is a great night for our team, our fans and our town. We've got to build on this, but it says a lot about St. Francis that we're this pumped up to beat them."
Brock, the assistant principal and athletic director at Port Huron Northern, was at the game to see the win.
"It's no different than two years ago losing to Elk Rapids," St. Francis coach Greg Vaughan said. "For us to be a measuring stick I guess is good respect for our program and our team as a whole that they look at us that way. We've got to live up to those expectations and get better. Not taking anything away from them whatsoever, because (Grayling) came out and played great football. We knew it was going to be a tough game coming in. The last two years have been super close."
After a wild first half which ended with a 14-14 tie, Grayling's Nick Swiercz recovered a fumble in St. Francis territory. On the next play, Kevin Harris — on his first carry of the game — broke to the left sideline and scored a 28-yard touchdown for a 21-14 Vikings lead.
St. Francis tried to answer by driving the field on its next possession, but stalled out on the Grayling 2-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
Late in the quarter, the Gladiators got the ball back and reached the endzone eight players later when fullback Jake Khoury scored 15 yards out while carry defenders with him. However, a false start pushed the extra point back and the kick missed to keep Grayling up 21-20.
With time winding down, Scout Tobin broke free on a 34-yard touchdown run with 29 seconds left to finish the scoring.
Tobin, Harris and Jensen all had a rushing touchdown and helped Grayling to 163 yards on the ground.
"I'd start off by giving the credit to the coaches," Jensen said of the balanced attack. "They came up with this scheme. We just have weapons and we refill these weapons."
Grayling quarterback Jake Swander finished 17-for-42 for 229 yards. Most of his work, though, was in the first half as he attempted 34 passes before the break and had 206 yards. He also caught a 5-yard pass from Jensen out of a wildcat formation.
"We knew we had a lot of stuff open in the first half, so we were kind of upset with ourselves that we weren't connecting on open passes," Sanchez said. "So it was, 'Don't worry. Things will take care of themselves.' We just had to be strong in the pocket and go over the middle and make the catches. Rhythm-wise, our offensive line really stepped it up and then our running backs kind of put us on their shoulders and ran us into victory."
Trailing 14-0 in the first quarter, the Gladiators were able to settle in on defense and special teams to get back into it. After Swander's touchdown catch, Jimmy Brady had a huge return on the kickoff to the Vikings 7-yard line and Byron Bullough posted a 4-yard touchdown run. Then, two plays later, linebacker Adam Armour had a shoestring interception and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 14-14.
The Gladiators had three interceptions in the first half and forced Grayling to turn it over on downs twice.
"Coming against a team like this, they can pass and they're very good at what they do and that's the base of their offense," Vaughan said. "When you've got three games against running teams, we definitely weren't working as much on that. That was a weakness coming in. We knew that, they knew that, and that's why they went to it. Our defense did very well in the secondary and linebackers coming up to keep things in front of us. We stopped them quite a few times.
"It comes down to offense. A couple play calls weren't great and we've got to do a better job of getting off the ball."
Grayling was able to get the first win against St. Francis despite starting the year with a lot of inexperience following a loaded senior class from last fall.
"They're winners," Sanchez said. "They have the tenacity and intensity to just push forward. We owe a lot to our kids. They've come in and worked hard since Day 1."
"It's definitely a confidence booster," Jensen said. "It's TC St. Francis. They are the team to beat. So first year to beat them, it's a confidence booster. Everyone said we lost a lot of weapons. We lost two All-State studs (from last year). But we wanted everyone to know, we're just reloading."
Bullough finished with 79 yards on 19 carries while Khoury ran nine times for 49 yards. Austin Currie was 5-for-11 passing for 81 yards.
Defensively, Harris had 12.5 tackles for the Vikings. Armour had 10 tackles for the Glads while Noah LaLonde had five tackles and an interception.
Grayling hosts Harbor Springs next week while St. Francis hosts Boyne City next Saturday for homecoming.
"Our guys definitely can't get too deflated," Vaughan said. "We still want to make the playoffs, and make a run in the playoffs. That's definitely still out there for us. We've got to get better. It's something we've preached all year long. That's what we're going to focus on."