BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY —
First, the playoffs.
Next up, home for the playoffs.
Traverse City Central locked up a playoff berth for the first time this early in the season, sewing it up in Week 7 with a 9-7 victory Saturday afternoon over Detroit Jesuit.
"It's the biggest thing we can hope for," said senior right guard Ken Merica, who was one of many Trojan players to exit the locker room with tear-filled eyes. "We're in the playoffs now after seven games, and if we go 8-1, we have a very high possibility of getting a home playoff game. It's big because this isn't the last game our seniors will play here, hopefully.
"It was just an emotional time for all of us, because Central has never been in the playoffs after seven games. Coach told us we have to win our one-on-one battles and I think every one of us went out there and did."
With two road games on tap, the Trojans likely need to win both — at Gaylord next Friday and at Cadillac to close out the regular season — in order for its seniors to play another game on the Thirlby Field turf in black and gold.
"It's historical," senior linebacker Nick Bonaccini said. "We're 6-1 and it's the first Trojan team to go to the playoffs after seven games."
Jesuit won 45-29 last year, and the last time Central defeated the Cubs was in 2004 — also in a low-scoring, defensive battle that ended 10-7.
"I told the kids it's been six long years of frustration and struggles and a lot of good moments," Central coach Tom Passinault said, "but for this program to be in the playoffs after seven games is a testament to the coaches and players — present and past — who persevered over some tough losses. These are the games we would have lost in the past. To hold onto the ball for seven minutes at the end and not let them get it back says a lot about our kids and also the advantage of having a good running quarterback. T.J. (Schepperly) knocked out some first downs that we would have punted in most situations."
The only touchdown Central would end up needing came in the late first quarter, as Joe Schepperly ran between Merica and center Joe Corcoran for a 5-yard stroll into the end zone and a 6-0 lead with 56 ticks left in the stanza.
"One of the (Detroit) papers said we were 1-9 against Detroit teams the last 10 times we've played them," senior defensive back Weston deTar said. "We took that to heart, because we felt it was a dis towards our team."
Central's defense keyed in on Jesuit's run game and held the Cubs to just 115 yards of total offense. Jesuit had 10 possessions and punted on the first four and had two turnovers on downs. The Cubs' first four drives resulted in a net loss of 17 yards.
The Trojans — who had 187 yards of total offense — also forced two other turnovers.
"We can attribute that to our defensive ends closing it to the middle and the front three for pounding them down and our linebackers filling the holes they were supposed to," Merica said.
The second half was different than the first, which saw Central have seven drives and Jesuit eight. The Trojans controlled the clock with grinding run plays and shortened the game with a pair of clock-running drives. From 6:20 in the third quarter on, Jesuit had the ball only once, ending with a Kelechi Duru 1-yard touchdown run after a 10-play drive with 6:42 to go.
The Trojans ground out a 13-play drive that ended in Jake Gorter's 27-yard field goal as the clock expired in the third quarter, and ate up the final 6:42 on the clock with a 14-play drive that was extended by a roughing the passer penalty that negated a Cubs interception.
"Jesuit is the kind of team that gives us trouble," Passinault said. "They're athletic enough that they can man up on the outside and load the box up. That gave us a lot of trouble.
"I think we wore them down. We don't quite have the receivers to run past their speed people, so we knew it would be a grind it out game. We had kind of a hangover from last week mentally. Just to knock that win out was huge."
The victory didn't come without cost.
Central did lose two key players to injury in the game. Starting tailback Ethan Campbell broke a 23-yard run on the Trojans' second play from scrimmage and limped off the field with a right ankle injury and didn't return. And linebacker Josiah Lopez-Wild — who led the Trojans in tackles along with Bonaccini — went down with a head injury after drilling Cubs quarterback D'Andre Gard for a 5-yard loss.
"We have to see what we have on Monday," Passinault said. "We'll see who is healthy. We need Nate Pupel back and get him to full strength. He's probably 75 percent right now."
Pupel — who is just returning from an injury of his own — played linebacker in place of Lopez-Wild after the injury.
"Our defense played awesome and the offense put some points on the board," Bonaccini said. "Week in and week out, we've been playing really good. I'm proud of the guys. The offensive line did great to open some holes and people stepped up when Campbell got hurt."