Romeo's defense leads the way to 41-7 win over Clarkston in regional final
CLARKS TON — Coming into the season, the expectations for defending Division 1 champion Romeo weren’t high. The Bulldogs graduated a strong senior class and some even thought it might be a rebuilding year.
Romeo had other plans. Led by a great performance from their defense, the Bulldogs punched their ticket to the Division 1 semifinals with a dominating 41-7 win over Clarkston in the regional championship game.
“We knew that we had some returning players from last year that people didn’t know about,” Romeo senior Kade Messner said. “People thought it was our senior class last year, but as we’re proving, our junior class was just as strong. The seniors this year, we’re honestly trying to prove everyone wrong. That’s our mindset, proving people wrong and never backing down.”
“We’ve grown exponentially,” Romeo junior Nathan Goralski. “It took a minute to kind of gel together. Our team has a lot of seniors last year. It just took a minute. Now, we’re 12 weeks in and we’ve really hit our stride. Team chemistry is at an all-time high. That’s awesome, it’s fun to be around.”
The Bulldogs’ defense came with big play after big play Friday night against the Wolves.
Romeo forced three Clarkston turnovers and came up huge in the red zone.
“We play the best when our backs are against the wall,” Messner said. “We all look at each other and just regroup. We’re playing for one another, we just have to do our job. Once we get down inside the 30, we just simplify everything and play as fast as we can.”
The Bulldogs (9-3) have allowed just 17 points in three state playoff games.
“Our kids played really hard,” Romeo coach Curt Rienas said. “We have some undersized kids out there, but they fly around. I think playing a good team like that, they’re going to make some plays. We’ve been really fortunate the last three weeks that once the team has crossed the 35, we’ve really clamped it down and came up with some big turnovers in that area of the field.
“Messner, he’s a three-year starter for us,” Rienas added. “He’s an amazing football player. Probably one of the best defensive players we’ve ever had here. He’s just got a great instinct for the ball. He made a lot of big plays tonight.”
Romeo will face the win of Grandville (10-1) and Detroit Catholic Central (11-0) in the semifinals.
“I haven’t even thought that far ahead yet,” Rienas said. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”
The Bulldogs scored on their opening drive of the game when Goralski rushed for a 4-yard touchdown with 8:37 left in the first quarter.
Romeo’s Malik Jones rumbled in for a 1-yard touchdown to put the Bulldogs up 14-0 with 10:56 left in the second quarter.
Bailey Karnego came up with a big interception to give Romeo great field position and the Bulldogs took advantage, capping off the first half with a 2-yard touchdown run by Ryan Medley with 22.7 seconds left in the second quarter.
Clarkston scored on its opening possession of the second half when Ryan Prisby caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from J.T. King.
The momentum appeared to be shifting towards the Wolves, but after a huge fourth down stop from Romeo’s defense, Goralski broke an 82-yard touchdown with 10:51 left in the fourth quarter.
“The crease was there just like we worked on all week in practice,” Goralski said. “The scout team defensively, set it up perfectly all week for us. It was right there like we practiced all week. I hit it and ran.
“I was getting nervous, I had a pit in my stomach because the momentum was shifting a lot. They were coming back there and I think that play helped a lot.”
Romeo stopped Clarkson on its next possession and on the first play of the Bulldogs’ next drive, Messner broke a 72-yard touchdown run with 9:28 left to put Romeo up 34-7.
“After I saw Nick go for that big one, I was like it’s time for me to get one too,” Messner said. “The O-line opened up hole, it was like the Red Sea, it split open. I just ran as fast as I could and that was it.”
Romeo’s Joel Smith capped off the route with a 57-yard touchdown run with 1:21 left.
The Wolves end the season 9-3 and won their fourth district title in the last five years.
“I think the kids had a great season,” Clarkston coach Kurt Richardson said. “Nobody expected us to win the league championship, nobody expected us to win the district. These kids, they had a good year. They had a good year and I’m proud of them all. I’ll tell you what, they were class kids, we had so few problems. They’re good people. I’m looking forward to coaching these kids next year.”