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RIVALS SERIES: DeLong’s big plays help Port Huron Northern seal rivalry win over Port Huron, keep possession of ‘The Brick’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, October 12, 2019, 2:50 pm

PORT HURON — When ‘The Brick’ is on the line, it seems to bring out the best in James DeLong. 

As a junior, the Port Huron Northern wideout caught three touchdown passes to bring the Huskies back from a two-score deficit against their rivals from Port Huron.

And in Friday night’s 53rd meeting between the two crosstown rivals, DeLong came up huge over a six-minute span in the fourth quarter, making a sequence of four huge plays that helped seal a 29-26 win for the Huskies, their third straight in the rivalry series.

“He’s just a freak athlete, and makes big plays when it matters,” senior quarterback Seth Klink said of DeLong, who came up so big in making Friday’s game a classic, even by the standards of this always-competitive rivalry.

“Oh, this is a classic. I’ll never forget this game for the rest of my life. The (the Big Reds) are a hard-hitting team. They came out and they stuck every single play. Probably the hardest hitting team we’ve played this year. It was a lot of fun, and everyone’s going to remember this game for the rest of their life.”

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Adding fuel to the rivalry fire was the fact that both teams came in at 5-1, needing just one win to clinch a playoff berth. They were also both 3-0 in the Macomb Area Conference’s Blue Division — this year being just the ninth season in 30 years since joining the MAC that they’ve both been in the same division — with the winner in line for a share of the divisional crown.

More than that? Yup.

The two teams have played for the Cecil V. “Brick” Fowler trophy since the rivalry series started in 1966, and the traveling trophy — nicknamed ‘The Brick’ — will get to stay in the Northern athletic office for another 12 months. 

“Everything that’s happened tonight, with the playoff berth, a shot at the MAC Blue championship, it’s just amazing. There’s no other feeling like it,” said linebacker Luke O’Hare. “Walking past (‘The Brick’), going to the locker room, I just look at it, and it puts a big smile on my face. It’s just — it’s a beautiful thing.”

Even for guys who’ve been through it as both a player at a coach, Friday’s game was an instant classic. 

“This is probably my 10th, 11th (rivalry) game, and I would rank that as probably one of the top ones. There’s no doubt about it. This was a great game tonight,” Northern coach Larry Roelens said. “That was an amazing high school football game right there, between two great programs, one town. That was so fun to be a part of tonight.”

Neither team could get much momentum going until the start of the fourth quarter, when Klink made a last-second adjustment to convert a 3rd-and-12 on the first play of the final frame. Running a shallow crossing route against the grain, Nick Platzer came wide open in the left flat, and Klink — who’d been about to take off on a scramble — saw him at the last second, and hit him with a perfect sidearm flick of the wrist.

“Yeah, that was just a shallow cross, and we haven’t shown that, but we’ve been working on it. I just said ‘Let’s see what happens.’ I knew it was going to be open, based on the coverages they’d been playing, and that was what happened,” Roelens said. “Seth saw him at the last second, and that was a phenomenal job by Seth keeping poise and keeping his eyes downfield. … I saw it right off the get-go, because I saw all the attention that Braiden (McGregor) was getting on the drag over top. We ran off the corner, and nobody was there on the weak-side flat. 

“Then I saw Seth take off, and I’m like ‘SETH!’ And he looked up.”

Klink had almost forgotten that Platzer would be there, and was ready to scramble. 

In retrospect, he’s glad he didn’t. 

“Oh, yeah, because if I’d have taken off, I’d have gotten hit pretty hard, so I’m glad he was there to dump it off to,” Klink said. “I totally forgot. We had every single route going one way, and then we had one coming back the other way. I was about to take off, and I just looked up, and he was taking his drag across the field. I just threw over to him, and he did the rest.”

Once he got the ball to Platzer, there was wide open field in front of him, and he scampered 38 yards for the go-ahead score, putting Northern up 21-19.

Two possessions later, DeLong took over the game.

He returned a punt down to the Port Huron 10, setting up a score two plays later, when Klink hit him on a slant.

“I just made one move and got into the end zone. I barely had to do anything. It was all the linemen and Seth,” DeLong said modestly.

The lead would’ve been nine had the Huskies gotten the extra point off cleanly, but DeLong saved the day when the snap went awry, eventually getting the ball and lofting a pass into the right corner of the end zone for O’Hare, who caught it for the 2-point conversion to make it a 29-19 game.

“It was a little high snap, Jonah Mitchell caught it, and I was just asking him to toss it to me. We practice that all the time. Just passing it back, me throwing it to the tight end. And Luke O’Hare was ready for it. He was right there, and then I threw it, and he caught it,” said DeLong, who made the typical “FIRE! FIRE!” call. “I didn’t even have to say anything. He (O’Hare) just knew where to go.”

DeLong wasn’t done, though.

After Port Huron drove the field, scoring on a 6-yard run by Nijere Finney with 2:32 left, cutting the deficit to 29-26, the Big Reds had to try an onside kick, as they were down to just one timeout. 

Who was there to recover it on the hands team for Northern? Of course it was DeLong.

“He’s just such a heady kid, and such a smart kid, such a good athlete. He’s done it before, but that was just perfect timing,” Roelens said. “Perfect timing.”

Despite a laundry list of injuries on both sides of the ball, the Huskies were able to convert a third-and-2 play with a 10-yard run by Isaak Ullenbruch, allowing them to kneel out the clock, clinching the win. 

“That was huge. That’s what I said in the huddle, I said ‘You grind it out. You go get 2 yards, you’re going to win.’ Isaak got the handoff, and just kept his legs churning and going, and the line got a good push,” Roelens said, admitting he finally was able to sigh with relief. “It always is (relief). Just the atmosphere, and the emotion that’s involved in this game, you get done, and you feel so elated for your kids, because of how much work they put in. And it’s not just a rivalry, it’s a share of a conference championship, it’s a playoff berth, it’s beating your rival. There are so many things wrapped up into it. It’s just awesome.”

The Huskies (6-1, 4-0 MAC Blue) need just a win over Roseville (2-5, 2-2) next Friday to clinch their second straight MAC Blue title outright. Then they’ll finish out the regular season with a crossover game against Warren Fitzgerald before heading to the playoffs for a fourth straight year. 

How banged up they are headed into those games remains to be seen. 

Theo Ellis — who scored Northern’s first touchdown; Klink scored the other on the ground — left the game with an injury, as did McGregor, the University of Michigan commit, who had his right leg in an air cast at the end of the contest.

“I don’t know yet,” Roelens said when asked about their status. “I’m assuming they’re going to go on Monday to get checked out at the doctor, but as of right now — we lost six guys tonight, various injuries here and there.”

The Big Reds (5-2, 3-1) were dealing with injury coming into the game, as Phil Mackay had to sub at quarterback for injured starter De’Ovion Price for a second straight game. Mackay excelled again, going 11-for-22 for 209 yards and three scores — one each to Dawson Leffler, Brandon Westrick and Blake Bland — in the loss.

“He stepped in and played well. He’s taken snaps for us for a couple of years as a backup. He’s played a lot of football as a running back, linebacker, so he’s tough. He’s handled himself tremendously, and he played an outstanding game — two weeks in a row, he’s played outstanding,” Port Huron coach Ryan Mullins said. “We had an injury a week ago, where he was the next guy up. It was game-time all week this week. We’ve had very good quarterback play from a couple of different guys, so it was a tough decision, but he’s a senior and had a good week of practice, and played a great game.”

The Big Reds close out divisional play at home Friday, hosting St. Clair Shores Lakeview (5-2, 3-1), still with a chance to share the MAC Blue title, if they get some help. There’s also an automatic playoff berth on the line — it would be Port Huron’s first playoff appearance since 2014 — with a win in one of their next two games. 

“We have a lot ahead of us. We’ll rebound. … You have to just keep battling, and fight through this. It’s a very emotional situation, but we’ll fight back,” Mullins said. “Very emotional game, and I thought our kids played with great heart, great emotion, great effort. It’s a tough loss, but we’ll keep our heads up and rebound here in about 24 hours.”