GREENVILLE — Beaming with confidence and a strong, ruckus crowd of Kingsley faithful making the travel to Greenville, the Stags entered Saturday’s football game expecting to win and head to Ford Field next week for the state finals.
Kingsley faced off against the Lansing Catholic Cougars (12-1), who got off to a quick start, putting the Stags on their heels early. Lansing Catholic’s early 14-0 lead would prove to be the difference in the game, as the Cougars defeated Kingsley, 28-14, ending the Stags’ perfect season.
Stags head coach Tim Wooer was visibly emotional following the game knowing the team fought hard in their biggest game of the season.
“Last year’s group really built a strong foundation and this group got us really close,” Wooer said. “This is not how I envisioned we would play so it was an unexpected ending, so that makes it really tough. But I just told them that I know our seniors would want us to learn from this and we’re not going to talk about it, today’s about our seniors. But at some point, for them, you have to play your best in big games, which we didn’t do today.”
After both teams stalled on its first drive, the Cougars hit a big play to senior Griffin Hotchkiss, an 89-yard catch and run, which gave them an early 7-0 lead after the made extra point.
Aside from a 42-yard run by junior Owen Graves, the Stags struggled to get their offense rolling in the first quarter. Their first full drive of the second quarter resulted in a fumble at their own 20-yard line, which resulted in a scoop-and-score for Lansing Catholic’s Hotchkiss, which put the Cougars up 14-0 after the made extra point.
“We just came out slow and didn’t come and play Kingsley football right away,” said Kingsley senior quarterback Tyler Inthisone. “It’s a great run, it was fun but it just didn’t end the way we wanted it to.”
The Stags would answer the touchdown with their first sustained drive of the day, a drive lasting 3 minutes, 54 seconds, which spanned 78 yards and would result in a one-yard touchdown run by senior Payson Caballero, making the score 14-6 after a missed two-point conversion.
Wooer noted that the big plays by Lansing Catholic in the first half would turn out to be crucial.
“I thought defensively, you go back and watch film, just like any game that you lose, you can go back to four or five big plays that changed the game,” he said. “I mean, they were good, no doubt about it, but we thought it was a winnable game and anytime you have a winnable game and you fall short, you’re disappointed.”
Kingsley could not capitalize on the opening possession of the second half, going three-and-out. Its momentum changed though thanks to a key interception by senior Ayden Mullin, who picked off the pass from Lansing Catholic’s Zach Gillespie in the end zone. However, the Stags couldn’t turn the five-minute drive into points.
The stalled drive led the Cougars to another score to put them up 21-6 after Mitch Raphael took a handoff for 57 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Needing an answer, Inthisone would find Mullin in the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown catch on the next drive, which spanned 67 yards in 2:21. The Stags found themselves down 21-14 after Caballero rushed in for the two-point conversion.
With the Cougars getting the ball with 9:20 left, the Stags needed a defensive stand. However, much like the majority of the game, the Cougars had their way on offense, methodically driving down the field for an insurance score as Gillespie rushed from one-yard out for the touchdown, putting the Cougars up 28-14 with 6:19 left.
Wooer said Lansing Catholic proved themselves as the bigger, more physical team on Saturday.
“We’ve been undersized and we were undersized today,” he said. “They were much bigger and stronger than us but we fought and we scratched and we clawed and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. Teaching kids how to overcome adversity and continuing to fight.”
After a 1-8 season plagued the Stags in 2017, Wooer’s arrival led to immediate success, leading the Stags to 22 wins in the next two seasons. Though it was tough to appreciate the prior accomplishments at the moment, he had no regrets about the outcome or the game plan.
“Absolutely not. This has been an incredible experience and an incredible run,” Wooer said. “Our JV (team) went undefeated, we have six sophomores on varsity. We lose some talented seniors but there’s no doubt we’ll be back and ready to go next year.”
“I’m sad that it’s over now for me, but this is a good momentum builder for the guys next year,” Inthisone added. “They’re going to have something to give a little extra motivation for the summer, come back and win it all next year.”
Graves was the Stags’ leading rusher with 110 yards on 10 carries. Mullin added 74 yards on 18 carries. Junior Will Whims led the defense with 14 tackles.
Lansing Catholic statistics were not submitted before press time. The Cougars advance to the Division 5 state finals where they will face off against Almont (13-0) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.