ELK RAPIDS — Joe Studzinski scored on a 93-yard kick return to tie the game just before half, then St. Francis went on for a 36-26 non-league win at Elk Rapids on Friday night.
Studzinski’s return came just 14 seconds after the Elks went 80 yards, the last 71 on a run by Thais Grays, to take a 14-7 lead.
But any momentum gained from that was shortlived.
“The kickoff return for a touchdown was a big shift for us on our sideline,” St. Francis coach Greg Vaughan said.
Early in the second half, the Gladiators held the Elks to a two-yard possession, leading to a punt. But the snap was high, eluding Ryan Bush, and sending the ball into the endzone. Bush kicked the ball out of bounds for a safety, giving St. Francis a 16-14 lead — a lead that they would not relinquish.
The Gladiators stretched that cushion when Joe Trucco scored his second touchdown of the night on nine-yard run at the end of the third quarter to make it 22-14.
Then, early in the fourth quarter, Adam Armour scooped up a fumble and returned it 51 yards for a touchdown, putting the Gladiators up 29-14.
Elk Rapids answered with a 74-yard carry by Grays, but a failed two-point conversion left the score at 29-20.
Studzinski’s 18-yard touchdown run pushed the count to 36-20, but Grays returned the ball 80 yards for an Elk Rapids score with 3:29 left in the game.
“They’ve got big playmakers like Thais, you know, he can get a score every time he touches the football,” Vaughan said.
Grays had 172 rushing yards and two touchdowns while quarterback Adam Trautman went 4 for 9 for 94 yards and 12 rushing yards. He was sacked twice.
“Monday, we got to forget about this and learn from our mistakes,” Elks coach Ed Schindler said. “Our eyes have got to go forward and start looking at the conference.”
Both teams were plagued by penalties.
“I thought we were doing a pretty good job of stopping ourselves on penalties,” Schindler said. “We had a lot more penalties tonight than I would have liked to have seen. We’ve been pretty disciplined the first couple weeks.”
Two big pass plays late in the first quarter gave Elk Rapids the early 7-0 lead. The first was a 67-yard throw from Trautman to Rob Wolfington that put the ball at the Gladiators 16. On the next play, Trautman connected again with Wolfington for the score.
“We had to stop the option and that would leave open the pass,” Vaughan said. “We knew our guys back there would have to play assignment football. We had some kids out of position that couldn’t make tackles, but heck, they got some kids that are pretty fast.”
St. Francis put together a 70-yard drive, culminating with a 41-yard touchdown run by Trucco that tied it.
“Our sophomore, Joey Trucco on offense did a great job, but the kid that probably changed everything on offense the most was Lance Anderson,” Vaughan said. “He just came in and we needed a quick hit at fullback and he helped us get those nitty, gritty yards when we needed them.”
Anderson ran 66 yards while Trucco had 69 and Byron Bullough 30.
“It was good to see Byron (Bullough) not just block tonight but he had some nice cuts running the ball,” Vaughan said.
Elk Rapids opens conference play next week at Charlevoix while St. Francis will be home with Grayling.