State Champs chronicles Kyle Thomas and Walled Lake Western on a long and incredible journey to Lowell and back
Walled Lake – Kyle Thomas, Walled Lake Western’s senior quarterback, treated his team’s game at Lowell as just another road trip. Last season he started his first varsity game after a long bus ride to Bay City so this was nothing new.
“It’s different,” Thomas said of the long trip. “I like it because it’s different. Especially going to Lowell. They have a great program. I watched them play (Birmingham) Brother Rice at Ford Field. I don’t remember what year it was.”
For the record it was 2011 and Brother Rice won, 24-14, in the Division 2 final.
When Western-Lowell game ended around 10 p.m. every Western player, coach and fan realized what they had been a part of was not just another road game. It had been an extraordinary experience.
The trip home on I-96 gave everyone time to reflect on what was one of the most incredible games in school history.
Western filled two buses last Thursday to travel to Lowell to open the season. The trip took a little over three hours and included a stop for pasta, salad and garlic bread.
The busses arrived at 4:45 and the team went to the visiting locker room to put on their white jerseys and pants with blue trim and blue numbers, and to receive their last-minute instructions.
The team they were about to face was ranked No. 3 in the preseason by State Champs. Lowell had reached a regional final in 2014 and returned 17 starters.
Western was also predicted to be a formidable team. The Warriors came in ranked No. 19.
Preparing for a team like Lowell is a challenge to any coaching staff. Lowell coach Noel Dean runs the midline veer offense similar to the one Muskegon and Rochester Adams run. Western’s rival, Walled Lake Central, also uses some of the veer tendencies so Western coach and his defensive coordinator, Draeton Steiner, have experience defending it.
“It’s like preparing for Canton,” Steiner said. “They don’t run that many plays but they use a number of formations to disguise it.”
Western played Canton, a team that runs the two tight end, T-formation offense, in 2013 playoffs.
On the bus Thomas said he learned much from his predecessor, Kyle Bambard, who is now at North Carolina State as a place kicker. As a sophomore Thomas was a starter on the junior varsity when Bambard was a senior. Bambard enrolled at N.C. State this past January and last season was a volunteer assistant at Western.
“He was a great leader,” Thomas said. “He knew how to run the offense. He came back and coached and he helped me a lot. If I did something wrong he’d tell me. Mostly he helped me be a leader.”
His leadership qualities would be tested against Lowell.
Western and Thomas stumbled out of the gate. On its first four drives Western had 20 yards and no first downs. On the fifth Thomas started to click. He completed consecutive attempts to receiver Cody White totaling 25 yards. A 39-yard pass to Jake Prokes set up Thomas’ 1-yard touchdown run that tied the score at 7-7.
Late in the half Thomas completed four consecutive passes, including a 24-yarder to White that led to Prokes’ 1-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 14-14.
Prokes is a senior running back who is also a fine receiver out of the backfield. White is a 6-3 junior receiver who recently received a scholarship offer from Wisconsin.
“I don’t know if I have as many weapons as I have now,” Thomas said after the game. There’s Cody, Prokes and Kameron Ford, who’s a junior, too.”
All three would play big roles in what Zdebski would call one of the top five games he’s ever been involved with as a head coach.
It took Lowell two plays to regain the lead to start the second half. Quarterback Ryan Stevens, who would statistically surpass Thomas, threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to Avery Buckius.
Western gained one first down on its first two possessions and on the second Zdebski called for a fake punt, which resulted in Thomas losing a yard and Lowell taking over on Western’s 45. Lowell took a 27-14 lead on Stevens’ third of his five touchdown tosses. But, significantly, Lowell faked the conversion kick and its try for two points was stopped.
“Down two touchdowns, it’s not the easiest thing to do to come back,” Thomas said. “Not everyone believes. They won’t say that. But that’s what was happening on the sideline. The vibe on the sideline was, oh heck.”
Thomas said minutes after the game it was up to him to make a big play in order to infuse confidence in his team.
Five plays after Lowell took the 13-point lead Thomas did just that throwing a 43-yard touchdown pass to Ford.
Lowell scored on the next series to take a 33-21 lead but, again, it missed the try for two.
Thomas converted twice on third down on the next series. On third-and-2 from the 7-yard line Thomas threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Prokes and Western was within 33-28 with 8:16 left.
On its next series Western took its first lead. On a third-and-10 Thomas ran 29 yards to the Lowell 1-yard line. Prokes scored his third touchdown and he caught Thomas’ pass for the conversion and Western led 36-33 with 4:22 remaining.
Lowell appeared tired. Its defense couldn’t stop Thomas. Stevens completed just one pass in his last seven attempts when he found Gage Steed deep in the secondary near the right hash marks and senior receiver’s 75-yard touchdown reception gave Lowell a 40-36 lead with 3:56 left.
It took Western just 53 seconds to score again with what would be the 12th and last touchdown of the game. Thomas’ 43-yard pass to White moved the ball to the Lowell 14 and two plays later Thomas spotted a wide open Prokes in the right flat and ran untouched for a 14-yard touchdown. The conversion kick was blocked but Western held on, limiting Lowell to two first downs on the next drive and Western shocked Lowell, and those on the west side, with a 42-40 victory.
It was Lowell’s first loss in an opener since 1993.
“I’ve played football a long time,” Thomas said. "I’ve never played a game so suspenseful, so nerve-racking. Personally, it was my best game in my high school career.
“In the eighth grade we were down two touchdowns and came back to win. I played for the Walled Lake Braves and that was in the playoffs. We beat the Livonia Falcons. We weren’t supposed to win that game, just like against Lowell. We had the same group of guys, (Tyler) Shreve, David Langmeyer, Jackson Neracher and Cody (White) was on that team, too. He was in the seventh grade. Dan Barrett was on that team. He’s my center.”
After throwing for 26 yards in the first quarter, Thomas was outstanding in the final three. He completed 22 of 38 attempts for 345 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 48 yards and one touchdown.
Not a bad start to your senior year.
“I couldn’t have imagine a better one,” Thomas said.