TRAVERSE CITY — Every time Ishpeming Westwood delivered a punch, Traverse City St. Francis shook it off and countered with one of its own.
Every time. And then some.
The Gladiators trailed twice early on and only ran two offensive plays in the entire first quarter, yet rallied to defeat the Patriots 48-20 in Saturday’s Division 7 regional football championship at Thirlby Field in Traverse City.
“We knew that there were a couple teams throughout the year that got up on them, and we just had to withstand that punch from the second half,” Westwood senior running back Zach Carlson said. “But we couldn’t do that today.”
Carlson led a potent Patriots offense that puts two players in the backfield, both calling for the snap. He ran for 134 yards and two touchdowns and hauled in a 12-yard TD pass.
The No. 8-ranked Patriots (10-2) outgained TCSF 378-365 in total offense and ran 65 plays to the Gladiators’ 29. Carlson alone produced more rushes (34) than the Gladiators ran plays (29).
No. 1-ranked St. Francis (12-0) moves on to play Pewamo-Westphalia — which beat Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker 20-0 — next Saturday at 1 p.m. at Cedar Springs.
Lawton (12-0) and Jackson Lumen Christi (11-1) play Saturday in the other D-7 semifinal.
Westwood fans shaking change-laden milk jugs with Upper Peninsula stickers on the outside had a lot to cheer for early on.
The Patriots won the coin toss and chose to take the ball, reeling off 13 plays that ended in Carlson’s 3-yard TD run. A roughing the snapper penalty on a Westwood punt extended the drive, as the Patriots started out by throwing on four of their first six plays.
“We planned on running that play the first play,” Carlson said. “But it just kept working, so we just kept running it.”
Three of those completions went to Marcus Boase.
Two plays later, Gabe Olivier broke off a 60-yard touchdown run as St. Francis punched back after just 33 seconds.
Westwood ran off an 18-play drive, with Carlson catching a 12-yard TD pass from Zach Beckman for a 14-7 lead.
“That was very frustrating,” TCSF head coach Josh Sellers said. “But again, you’re playing against a quality program like that. They’re going to have some success. But the way we responded on both sides of the ball, I thought was pretty nice.”
Again, the Gladiators had an answer, almost like they had a cheat sheet for the regional exam.
St. Francis converted a 1st-and-39, with Charlie Peterson chucking a pass over the middle to Olivier for a 52-yard touchdown and 14-14 tie. Referees hit TCSF with three straight penalties — holding (which wiped out a Nausadis TD run), illegal motion and unsportsmanlike conduct — to set up the 1st-and-39.
Two big tackles by Groves led to a Westwood short punt, setting up the Glads at the 37. Peterson found Groves over the middle for a 36-yard touchdown.
“I thought going into the game it was going to be whoever could stop the big play from happening was going to have the most success,” Sellers said. “We just couldn’t get off the field defensively early in the game.”
TCSF ran only 12 plays in the first half to take a 21-14 lead into the locker room.
Nausadis ended the day with three touchdowns, adding runs of 13, 63 and 24 yards in the second half. He cashed in on the team’s opening possession out of halftime for an important two-score lead at 28-14 after Brice Kempf’s extra point.
“That was big,” Sellers said. “Knowing we had the ball coming out and then cashing in on that one to go up by two scores, that was kind of a momentum shifter.”
Olivier’s 31-yard interception return for a touchdown all but sealed the win with 9:59 remaining.
“Gabe is the kind of the unsung hero of this group, where he just does a lot of the dirty work,” Sellers said. “Made a lot of big plays today. That was another big one on his resume.”
Carlson, who was runner-up in voting for the U.P. Offensive Player of the Year, scored his third touchdown of the day with a 1-yard run in the third quarter.
“That was our goal, to come down here and give them a game,” Carlson said. “I wish we could keep going, but we won a district for the first time in school history.”
The Patriots also won 10 games for the first time in program history in head coach Scott Syrjala’s seventh year. Syrjala has led Westwood to three of the program’s five playoff victories, including two this year.
“They’re unbelievable size,” Syrjala said of St. Francis. “They have double the athletes, and our kids went toe to toe with them for three quarters. I’m happy with that. I’m not satisfied, but I’m proud of our kids.”
Nausadis ran for 125 yards and Olivier 101. Peterson completed 4of 5 passes for 116 yards, putting him at 1,677 for the season.
Beckman ran for 121 yards and threw for 107 more for Westwood. Boase caught four passes for 38 yards.
Josh Groves and Gabe Olivier led the Gladiator defense with 13 tackles each, Luke Biggar added 10 and Garrett Hathaway nine. Groves and Olivier have been solid all season for the Glads, but Hathaway’s emergence in the wake of Joey Donahue’s season-ending knee injury helped gel the defense into a unit that kept McBain off the scoreboard in the first half last week and almost shut out Westwood in the second half Saturday.
“It’s just pretty seamless,” Sellers said. “Joe has helped him a lot with that transition, too. Garrett’s been able to accept that and has played really well for us.”
Donahue missed the Kingsley game and all three playoff games, with Hathaway stepping into a starting linebacker role alongside Groves and Olivier.
“You can’t replace Joey,” Nausadis said. “That’s just true. But Garrett has stepped up big time and he’s made big plays, so it’s been pretty smooth.”
Hathaway said the expectation of replacing the Northern Michigan Football Conference’s Legends Division co-Defensive Player of the Year in the lineup was big, but teammates and coaches echoed how well he’s handled it.
“It was a lot of pressure,” Hathaway said. “I knew I just needed to step up and do my best. I talked to Joey about it. I was like, ‘What do I need to do?’ to fill his role and I did my best.”