TRAVERSE CITY — Changes have come swiftly during the 2020-21 high school football season and Saturday’s Division 4 regional final between Cadillac and Forest Hills Eastern was no exception.
The game was moved to Thirlby Field late Friday night after icy field conditions at Cadillac High School made the surface unsafe for play and the momentum was in constant swing Saturday night.
Changes in game time and location — or the extended layoff — may have led to the quick changes in a 27-23 win over Forest Hills Eastern that saw eight total turnovers in the game.
The win marks the first regional title in program history for the Cadillac Vikings (7-2).
“This is just really big for our guys,“ Cadillac head coach Cody Mallory said. “We talked a lot about fighting harder, longer and we really did that tonight. I am extremely proud of our guys.”
The Vikings were down 20-6 at halftime and began their battle back with a touchdown from Carter Harsh on the opening possession of the second half. The Vikings drove 75-yards after the halftime kick sailed for a touchback and Harsh found the endzone from nine yards out on a 4 minute, 20 second drive. Noah Cochrane scored the lone first half touchdown for the Vikings on a 4-yard run after Aden Gurden broke free for a 33-yard run to set up the score.
Forest Hills Eastern (6-4) took the momentum into the halftime break after stopping the Vikings on the 1-yard line by forcing a fumble on a quarterback sneak with 44 seconds to play in the first half.
“We have a great, great group all year and they’ve dealt with adversity all year,” Mallory said. “They didn’t shut down there so we’re really proud of them.”
Harsh sparked the first burst of momentum for the Vikings with an interception after the Vikings went down 13-0 in the first quarter and the Hawks were threatening to go up three scores.
“As soon as I intercepted that ball I turned around right there and told my team it was time to turn it around right there,” Harsh said. “In the locker room everybody had their heads down and I walked around and told them to pick their heads up because we had a whole half to play.”
The second half was dominated by the Vikings defense, forcing four turnovers including two fumbles on the last two Hawks possessions. The Hawks were only able to manage three points in the second half that came off a 23-yard field goal from Brady Conlan.
Harsh would go on to score a second time, a nine-yard run in the fourth quarter to bring the Vikings within three.
The momentum began to fall in the Viking favor after the stop inside the 15-yard line that forced the field goal, a far cry from when the Hawks looked poised to run away with the game early.
“We went in the locker room at halftime and really it was about everybody just chilling out and taking a breath,” Mallory said. “I told them to do your job because that’s what that’s what really hurt us in the first half, we had three turnovers.”
The Vikings offense settled in the second half and were able to break chunk plays to keep drives alive, looking to Cochrane, Harsh and Kaleb McKinley. McKinley was responsible for the final score that put the Vikings up for good. Following a turnover near midfield, the Vikings ran the ball over and over until they faced a fourth and two at the Hawks 10-yard line. Mallory fed the ball to the fullback McKinley, who took the ball three plays in-a-row to put the Vikings ahead 27-23 with only five minutes left to play.
The Vikings would force back-to-back fumbles on the next two Hawks’ possessions, saving themselves from a trick play that failed on fourth down near midfield.
The Hawks were led by Bryson Kuzdzal, scoring two rushing touchdowns on the evening on 100 yards. Ethan Johns also had 74 yards on the ground. The first Forest Hills Eastern score came off a trick play that had a wide receiver toss a pass to Jacob Armbrester after running a reverse, catching the Vikings off-guard.
Harsh and Mallory agreed that the Vikings needed some time to work out the kinks after a 56-day layoff, but they both expected the big turn around in the second half.
“We always play better in the second half because we just got to get rolling,” Harsh said. “We haven’t played in a while so once we got rolling and saw what we had to do, that’s what we did.”
Cochrane led the Vikings with 93 yards and a score on the ground; Harsh had 58 yards and two scores; Gurden ran for 76 yards and passed for 31 yards; and McKinley rushed for 66 yards and a score. Collin Johnston led the defense with 10 total tackles and Dan Gray followed with six.
“We really wanted to win because this is history right here, this is history for our school,” Harsh said.