• Michigan

DIVISION 5: Lansing Catholic rallies from down 10 to beat Almont, win first title since 1985, first for Hall of Fame coach

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, November 30, 2019, 8:21 pm

DETROIT — Being down was something Lansing Catholic was not only used to, but thrived upon.

So falling behind by 10 to Almont in the third quarter of Saturday’s Division 5 championship game was not a shock to the system. 

Once Lansing Catholic grabbed the momentum, the Cougars never let it go, rolling up 24 unanswered points to beat Almont, 31-17, and clinch the program’s first championship since 1985, and the first in the Hall of Fame career of their coach.

“Back in Week 5, we were down 21-7 against Portland, and then had that delay, and were able to come back the next day, and have a clean half,” said Cougars senior Sam Edwards of his team’s resilient mentality. “The rest of the season, we wrote on the board ’21-7 mentality.’”

After the Cougars (13-1) tied it up early in the fourth, the go-ahead score came with 3:41 left in the game, when Zach Gillespie hit Mitch Raphael with a 23-yard scoring pass — one that was initially ruled an incompletion, and was overturned by a new feature of MHSAA football finals: instant replay review.

It came minutes after a call was reversed on a fumble forced by Edwards on the kickoff following the tying score. 

“All I can say is ‘Thank God for replay,’” joked coach Jim Ahern. “Both those plays were obviously key to the outcome of the game.”

The latter overturn was not a tremendous surprise to the staff and players of Almont (13-1) after they saw Raphael’s catch replayed on the big board.

“He just made a great grab,” said Almont safety Jack Paupert, who was trailing the play. “Nothing you can do.”

Ahern, who had runner-up finishes in 2011 and 2014, added a state title to his Hall of Fame career. The semifinal win was No. 300 in his career.

“All week, we said ‘Let’s get him to 301,’” said Edwards, who was bummed he wouldn’t be able to play for his coach anymore. “No one deserves this more than him right here. Love him to death.”

Ahern also won it with long-time defensive assistant Mike Doran, who arrived in Ithaca two years after his long-time boss in the early 1970s, and followed him to Florida during Ahern’s hiatus there in the mid-2000s, eventually rejoining forces with the Cougars when the coaching staff was put in place in 2009. 

“We’ve been together for a long time. It was special to win it with him,” Ahern admitted. “I don’t do a whole lot with the defense, except to maybe say ‘Why aren’t we stopping that play?’”

A ground-pounding team, Almont rolled up 203 net yards rushing, and 319 offensive years in total, but the Cougars defense forced seven turnovers — five of them interceptions.

Zach Stone picked off two passes, while Vince Salquist, Zach Gillespie and Edwards — who recovered two fumbles — had one each.

“I didn’t think we played real well in the first half, but we had two key interceptions that really kept us in it,” Ahern said. 

Gillespie’s 1-yard run put Lansing Catholic up 7-0 in the first, but Almont scored on Paupert’s 9-yard run with 9:07 left in the first half to tie it up 7-7, then piled on 10 more points — on Ryan Miller’s 31-yard field goal and Michael Lulgjuraj’s 22-yard TD run — to take a 17-7 lead with 4:34 left in the third.

The Cougars got a 24-yard field goal from Jonah Richards to cut it to a one-score game, 17-10, with 1:21 left in the third, then Gillespie tied it with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Salquist with 8:45 left in the game. 

Edwards forced the fumble on the ensuing kickoff, but only after the initial call was overturned by replay.

“I was kind of frustrated, like ‘I took the ball from him!’” Edwards said of the feeling before the replay was initiated. “I was kind of on a mission, and wasn’t going to let anything stop me.” 

After the go-ahead score, Stone’s second interception got Lansing Catholic the ball back with 2:49 left, and they were able to grind the clock down to 1:39 before adding on Gillespie’s 4-yard touchdown run to make it a two-score cushion. They kept the drive alive with a 28-yard pass from Gillespie to Alex Watters on fourth-and-7 from the Almont 35.