BOYNE CITY — Grayling coach Eric Tunney couldn’t ask for a better birthday present.
Tunney had his wish granted by playing a football season in jeopardy over concerns in the spread of COVID-19. The icing on the cake is a district championship trophy.
Tunney led a team that won one game the first four weeks of a shortened season to five straight victories and a Division 6 district title. Grayling outlasted Boyne City in a 28-20 win Saturday afternoon, moving on to host a regional for the first time in program history against Negaunee.
The only other time the Vikings appeared in the third round of the playoffs was in a 2005 loss at Muskegon Orchard View.
“I don’t think any of us expected this or expected us to make it this far,” Grayling senior quarterback Hunter Ventline said. “But we all just kept pushing and we all had heart. We made it.”
Tunney thinks otherwise.
He said he saw that heart in the Vikings all season, even when it seemed like the game was over by halftime. It’s the heart that led Grayling to a 49-14 upset at top-seeded Manistee, now two wins away from an appearance at Ford Field.
“I knew even in those three losses, I knew how well we looked at certain times,” Tunney said. “Against St. Francis and even Kingsley we had some glimmers of greatness. We just couldn’t put a full game together.”
The Vikings did just that Saturday, scoring first and shutting out the fourth quarter.
It was a game where three players combined for 63 rushing attempts — Bobby Hoth and Jacob Bush for Boyne; David Millikin for Grayling — and neither team tallied more than 200 yards rushing.
Boyne coach Dave Suttle said that wasn’t the Rambler team that got them to this point. He called Saturday a “weird day” after a week against Glen Lake where Hoth had 270 all-purpose yards himself.
“We didn’t look fast today. It looked like we were stuck in mud,” Suttle said. “We usually look extremely fast. Our team is fast. We play fast. For some reason, part of it was game flow, we couldn’t play fast.”
Ventline carried the ball from 15 yards out the Vikings first drive of the game and held onto a lead at the end of the first quarter.
Jack Near, returning from coronavirus quarantine Thursday, led the Ramblers back into the endzone with a deep pass to Aaron Bess. Bush finished the drive by walking into the endzone for six points, but the Ramblers kick from Ally Harrick was no good. Grayling kept a one-point lead at 7-6.
Things changed quickly.
Boyne’s Gavin Hewitt intercepted Ventline and Millikin fumbled twice. Hoth scored just before the end of the first half, intercepting Ventline a second time on a hail mary attempt, and the Ramblers took a 14-7 lead in the locker room.
“I challenged them at halftime, I said, ‘Body language wasn’t good the first half, we’re down,’” Tunney said. “We had four turnovers in the first half and we were down one score. Usually it’s worse than that.”
Millikin and Grayling picked up the tempo in second half.
The Vikings scored twice in the third quarter the first from a Millikin rush and the second on a 56-yard pass from Ventline to Dylan Cragg over a Boyne defender. Grayling led 21-14.
Hoth scored at the start of the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough. Bush fumbled the two-point conversion and the Ramblers didn’t take the lead. Suttle elected to try and convert on fourth-and-19 at midfield, the Ramblers failed, and soon thereafter Millikin raced down the sideline for a 50-yard touchdown to go ahead by eight.
Suttle chose to punt at midfield Boyne’s next possession, needing a red-zone stop to get the ball back with under four minutes and a timeout. The Ramblers got the stop, but Mason Wilcox muffed the punt after signaling fair catch. Grayling’s Anthony Fisher recovered the fumble.
Millikin said Fisher could have scooped the ball to score if the MHSAA’s rules permitted it.
Suttle said the Ramblers hadn’t missed a fair catch all season up until that point.
“He (Wilcox) just missed it,” Suttle said. “We thought we had a chance … That’s kind of the way the way it works out sometimes.”
The Vikings ran the clock out as Suttle burned his team’s final timeout — counting down the final seconds of the game at midfield and rallying to the trophy to celebrate.
Millikin finished with 26 carries for 121 yards, also catching two passes for 6 yards. Ventline completed 11-16 passes for 159 yards, adding seven rushing attempts for 25 yards. Cragg led in receiving with four catches for 93 yards and a touchdown, Andrew Kanary caught three passes for 43 yards.
Boyne’s Hoth finished with 96 yards on 15 attempts, Bush added 46 yards on 14 attempts and Bess with 40 yards. Aidan Brehm caught two passes for 20 yards, Bess with two for 32 yards. The Ramblers were led by Wilcox on defense with six tackles, Hoth added three.
There were seven fumbles between the two run-heavy teams.
Grayling hosts Negaunee (6-3) after the Miners beat Calumet 20-19 on the road. Ventline said he’s already excited to host the regional next week. A Grayling win would be the program’s first ever state semifinal appearance.
“We’ve got heart and I think that’s what it’s going to keep taking,” Ventline said. “Just going to keep driving and digging deeper and deeper every game.”
The date and time of the game are to be announced.