TRAVERSE CITY — For most teams in Michigan, Saturday was 56 days in the making.
For Traverse City Central, 32 years.
“I know that number,” said Eric Schugars, coach of the Trojans after winning their first regional title since 1988. “I’m just ecstatic.”
TC Central defeated North Farmington 50-22 at Thirlby Field in a rare January high school football game brought on by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Josh Burnham scored five touchdowns, four rushing and one defensive, as the Trojans erased a slow start and halftime deficit by scoring 38 unanswered points in the final 20 minutes of the game.
The Trojans defense was able to stop North Farmington’s two best offensive weapons, Aaron Rice and Justin Whitehorn, and intercept quarterback Jacob Bousamra four times. Carson Bourdo and Brayden Halladay each had two interceptions.
“These guys have just weathered the storms,” Schugars. “The fact of the matter is, we played a game two months ago, we were a little slow and rusty in the first half but these kids believed and they turned it on and that’s the mark of our team.”
Schugars thought this year’s team remembered the feeling of losing to Midland Dow in the district semifinal after an 8-1 regular season. The Trojans bought in, he said, and it wasn’t an unusual offseason.
Then came the second offseason, a 56-day pause brought on by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services because of a winter surge in COVID-19 cases. MDHHS implemented a testing program and the players returned to play Saturday. Only three other leagues in the country have games remaining in their season: The NFL, The College Football National Championship and the Texas UIL.
Bourdo said when games got cancelled, he knew they’d get another game, whether that be in the winter or spring. Official film sessions were not allowed, but a month to prepare meant watching each of the Raiders six games.
“I know every single guy on the team watched film,” Bourdo said.
Even with the two-month scouting report, the Trojans simply could not stop North Farmington’s Whitehorn.
The Trojans were putting double coverage on Rice for the majority of the first half. North Farmington runs an option offense, so option No. 2 was Whitehorn — a Saginaw Valley State commit who had 314 yards rushing against Waterford Kettering.
Whitehorn was shifty, speedy and agressive from the backfield. He led the Raiders down the field in a drive that ended with an 11-yard pass to Rice from Bousamra. The Raiders finished that quarter with the lead and a 143-57 advantage on total offense.
But the Raiders left points on the board when they made trips back to the red zone in the second quarter. Place kicker Masimo Sgambati missed two field goals and Jasper Beeler dropped a wide open touchdown pass that would have produced a two-score lead.
“I thought we had opportunities in the first half that we didn’t capitalize on,” North Farmington coach Jon Herstein said. “That might have made a little bit of a difference in the game.”
Burnham scored his first of five with 4:25 to the half, not succeeding on the two-point conversion, and North Farmington kicked a field goal to extend the lead to four at the half.
Schugars said the team didn’t need to make adjustments, even with Whitehorn’s 119 yards on 22 carries by the intermission.
“We went into halftime, we’re like, ‘We’re not making adjustments; we just weren’t playing well,’” Schugars said. “The rust certainly got knocked off.”
After just 36 seconds of game clock in the third quarter, Burnham was back in the end zone to take a 12-10 lead, the team’s first of the game. North Farmington’s Dez Blanch caught a pass from Bousamra to retake the lead for the Raiders, then Burnham gave the ball back and threw an interception caught by Justin Bryant midway through the third quarter.
That drive didn’t last very long. Beeler fumbled a completed pass and Burnham was right there to recover it and return it for a touchdown.
“(Burnham) has always made those plays, he’s just a playmaker, he’s a dog,” Bourdo said. “He was right there and we didn’t want to get too close and fight for it with him.”
It was the first of 38 unanswered points that brought back the Trojans high-scoring offense that led them to Saturday.
With 13 minutes of clock, Central turned the game into a blowout. Austin Bills rushed in a 40-yard touchdown; Halladay was 3 yards short of a pick-six; Bourdo returned an interception 40 yards and scored on the next play; Burnham rushed for a 45-yard TD, then the ensuing kickoff was fumbled at the 1-yard line and recovered in the end zone by Nate Madion.
Whitehorn, who ran as many plays himself as the entire Trojans offense in the first half, was quiet in the third quarter. Burnham managed to stop Whitehorn every time he was on the field with him in the second half, forcing Bousamra into deep passes.
“He’s really good,” Whitehorn said of his matchup with the four-star linebacker with offers from Alabama and Ohio State. “He can come up and fill his gap, and he’s a very good linebacker.”
Whitehorn finished his statline with 29 carries for 144 yards and a touchdown against the Trojans’ second string.
Burnham led the Trojans in offense with 176 yards (86 passing, 90 rushing) and on defense with eight tackles and his fumble recovery TD.
Bourdo had 134 yards (72 rushing, 62 receiving), Bills led in rushing with 103 yards on 12 carries and Carson Hall had nine carries for 93 yards.
Damon Livingston had five tackes. Gavin Graczak, Bills and Ryan Royston each added four.
The win marks an undefeated home slate for the Trojans and improves their record to 9-1.
Muskegon Mona Shores beat East Lansing on a game-ending field goal 24-21, sending the Trojans on the road to face the undefeated Sailors.
“They’re the great team for sure,” Bourdo said. “It’s gonna be a dogfight, so we’re excited.”