By JAMES COOK email@example.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Alpena has to be getting tired of Traverse City this week.
First, Traverse City West blanked the Wildcats 4-0 Tuesday in soccer. Then TC Central topped Alpena 3-0 on the pitch Thursday.
Now, West finished off the Wildcats week with a 36-22 win on the football field.
With five of its top offensive linemen on the shelf by the third quarter, Traverse City West (4-1, 4-0 Big North Conference) used an assortment of backups and younger players to grind out a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns.
“We lost Connor Hayes and Thiyo (Lukusa) and Jake Cerny,” said running back Grant Balino, who ran 15 times for 137 yards and two touchdowns. “It was pretty tough, but we managed. Our backups came in, they did their job and we did pretty great.”
Hayes had season-ending knee surgery Thursday, and linemen Kaden Gillow and Alec Coolman were also out.
“Five of your top linemen coming back from last year are out midway through the third quarter,” West coach Tim Wooer said. “But a compliment to our juniors and the kids that stepped up.
“That shows the depth we had. Those juniors that came in, those kids competed against Hayes and Coolman and those types of players in practice, and it made them better. We weren’t perfect by any means, but there were some pretty crucial situations where we had to get a first down or a score for insurance — and those were the kids that got it done.”
Though West was outgained by Alpena 377-345, the Titans limited the Wildcats to just 78 yards on the ground. Alpena did much of its damage through the air, as Tyler Pintar led an attack that accounted fro 299 aerial yards, mainly to 6-foot-3 receiver Josh Bell.
“I always say time of possession only counts in an exorcism,” Alpena coach Mel Skillman said. “We played well and stayed in the ballgame. I’m glad it didn’t come down to that phantom touchdown that started the game.”
But West was able to blunt those statistical advantages with four big defensive plays — a fumble recovery and three interceptions. The Titans didn’t turn the ball over.
Despite not putting up a first down until 4:55 was left in the second quarter, West was still tied 7-7 thanks to Geordon Carter’s alert play when he scooped up an incomplete pass from Pintar to Jordan Ferguson that was ruled a lateral. Carter would sprint 36 yards for his first varsity defensive touchdown and an early 7-0 lead 3:07 into the game.
“At first, I kind of thought it was a dead ball and I’m jogging over there,” Carter said. “I realized the whistle hadn’t blown, so I’m jogging a little faster. Pick up the ball and took off running.”
Zach McGuire ended a Wildcats second-quarter drive at the 10, picking off a pass intended for Kaleb Smith over the middle.
After West had opened the second half with an impressive six-play, 80-yard drive to take a 21-7 lead, Keegan Kenny intercepted a pass inside the 10 to end a 13-play Wildcat drive with zero points to show for it.
“That pick Keegan made kind of turned it around,” Balino said. “I love our defense. They’ve been doing their job this whole season.”
The Titans had taken a 21-7 lead on Jeff Turnquist’s 23-yard pass to 248-pound tight end Austin Cleary, who rumbled in for the score, but the Wildcats were well on their way to pulling within a touchdown when Kenny stepped in front of Jordan Ferguson to slam the door on that scoring opportunity.
Max Ludka’s 5-yard TD run put West up 13-7 early in the second to cap off West’s first successful drive of the day, an 11-play, 69-yard possession after three three-and-outs for a net gain of 1 yard.
All three of Alpena’s scores came through the air, with Pintar connecting twice with Smith and once with Bell for touchdowns.
Balino added a 7-yard TD run early int he fourth quarter for a 28-14 lead before Alpena countered with Smith’s second 58-yard TD catch.
Once again, West responded with a scoring drive to stay ahead by more than a touchdown, this time on a 25-yard, tackle-breaking run by Balino with 1:24 remaining to all but seal the game’s outcome.
Carter ended Alpena’s final possession with a pick with 19.5 ticks left and West ran out the clock inside the Wildcat 10.
“We were back and forth and had a lot of mental mistakes,” Carter said. “But we had those big plays to make up for it, so it kind of evened itself out.”
Junior Ryan Groseclose came in to replace Lukusa, and junior Dalton Mitchell made his first varsity start in place of Hayes.
“Our offensive line coach, Mike Hayes, said in the fourth quarter Ryan was playing with the best leverage of any lineman,” Wooer said. “I would guess Lukusa is going to be out for awhile. Cerny is going to be day-to-day with an ankle. I don’t know if we’ll get them back next week or not.”
The Titans did get Grant Ellison back, although he say most of his action on offense as Quincy Rowan and others filled in at linebacker.
“You get some back and you lose some,” Wooer said. “It’d be nice to get Gillow or Coolman — one of the two or both of them — back next week.”
West’s defensive effort was led by 13 tackles each by Caleb Briethaupt and Jordan Stevenson and 10 by McGuire.