KINGSLEY — With a lot of hunter orange in the crowd on a blustery Saturday afternoon, these prized Stags would not be bagged today.
The Kingsley Stags (12-0) stampeded past Freeland (9-3) 43-21 in Saturday afternoon's Division 5 regional football championship game at Rodes Field to book a spot in next Saturday's 1 p.m. state semifinal against Lansing Catholic (11-1) at Greenville.
The semifinal berth is Kingsley's second in program history. The first ended with a 2005 state championship.
"It's just an amazing atmosphere out here," Kingsley junior fullback Owen Graves said. "Everyone comes out, everyone gets excited, everyone's pumped up. Everyone's out there in hunter's orange. That's Kingsley. We go out there and do our thing and everyone's just happy to keep it going."
The Stags certainly did their thing, out-rushing the Falcons 297-53 and out-gaining them 337-219 in total yards. Freeland revived its passing game too late in the second half.
Coincidentally, Kingsley also plays Freeland in Tuesday's Division 2 volleyball quarterfinals.
Game-time temperature sat at a frigid 33 degrees, plus gusty wind that later calmed down. The Stags practiced outdoors all week preparing for the elements, while Freeland muffed its first two kick returns as the Falcons were adjusting to the conditions.
"It made it easier for sure," Graves said. "I'm glad we practiced outside, even though I hated doing it when we were doing it."
Both teams had heaters in their bench area, but Kingsley surely heated up the fastest.
The Stags didn't take long to take control, allowing the Falcons to gain just 16 yards on their first drive and then taking two plays to grab a 6-0 lead on Ayden Mullin's 51-yard touchdown run.
Freeland ran six plays with a net loss of a yard on a drive that featured a big Payson Caballero sack to force a punt. Five plays later, Hunter Springberg scored from 10 out on a sweep for a 12-0 lead with 2:04 left in the first quarter.
"Once we got a couple fourth down stops," Stags junior offensive lineman Dylan Knight said, "that's when we started to get momentum and then we started going."
Graves' 16-yard TD run and Caballero's two-point conversion run gave Kingsley 20 points before Freeland finally reached the scoreboard on a Trey Morgan 1-yard run with 1:29 left before halftime. Kingsley threatened to add back to its lead before an Alex Duley interception inside the 10-yard line.
"We got that big stop right at halftime," Freeland head coach Kevin Townsend said. "But they came right back out (in the second half) and hit us. They just didn't make mistakes."
Kingsley took nine plays to reach paydirt in the second half, with Mullin finishing it off with a 3-yard run and a Tyler Inthisone conversion run.
Caballero and Inthisone added 13- and 14-yard TD runs for a 43-7 lead with 8:16 remaining to start a running clock. Freeland added touchdowns in the final 4:12 by Easton Armstrong on a 47-yard pass from Bryson Huckeby and a 2-yard Jacob Kundinger run.
By then, the Stags had already started celebration plans. Junior varsity players entered the game, and athletic director Mitch Miggenburg posed for a sideline selfie with Inthisone and the regional championship trophy.
Townsend said his coaching staff watched the No. 2-ranked Stags take out No. 1 Muskegon Oakridge the previous Saturday, also at Rodes Field.
"They just hit the hole hard," Townsend said. "They get low pad level off the line. It's all such misdirection. Seriously, when we watched them play Oakridge last week, we're like, 'We'll take Oakridge.' I mean, Oakridge might beat us by 52, but (Kingsley) just has so much misdirection stuff that's going on and if you lose a kid on keys, they can hit the big plays and we knew we weren't going to keep them bottled up for forever."
Mullin ran 15 times for 123 yards and two TDs and caught two passes for 34 yards. Caballero added 58 run yards, Springberg 40 and Graves 23, with each scoring one rushing TD. Connor Schueller added 23 rush yards.
The first meeting with Freeland turns into the inaugural one against Lansing Catholic, 40-13 winners Friday over Kalamazoo Hackett. Catholic avenged its only loss of the season — 21-20 to Portland in Week Five — with a 21-0 shutout of the Red Raiders in the district finals.
The Stag defense spread out its production, with Brady Harrand recording seven tackles and Will Whims, Caballero, Mullin and Gage Hessem each making five stops. Jayden Inthison had two sacks and Caballero forced a fumble.
"I woke up this morning with tears my eyes, just thinking about our senior class and how this is their last game on Rodes field," Wooer said. "The most games you've got left now is two. And even if you win the state championship, it's still the end of something really fun and enjoyable. Next year we'll be back on this field against Ogemaw Heights in Week Two, but it will be without those seniors. So it's just tough. All good things have to come to an end at some point, and this was their last game on Rodes Field and fortunately they ended with a big exclamation point."