St Mary’s claims second straight state title behind pair of touchdowns from Tabone
DETROIT — Brandon Tabone understands the role of a quarterback in Orchard Lake St. Mary’s offense.
It isn’t to sling the ball all over the field. It isn’t to put up gaudy numbers that attract the attention of college recruiters and All-State voters.
He’d already quarterbacked St. Mary’s to a state championship, but was barely noticed, because he completed only three passes for 31 yards in a 7-0 victory over Muskegon.
The green light to air it out doesn’t come often from coach George Porritt, so it’s up to Tabone to capitalize when the opportunity presents itself.
Tabone did just that, throwing two touchdown passes to K.J. Hamler to supplement the Eaglets’ usual power-rushing attack in a 29-12 victory over Chelsea in the state Division 3 championship game on Saturday night at Ford Field.
Tabone was 5-for-9 for 79 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Most of the time, his role was to hand off the ball to the right running back and let the Eaglets’ ground-and-pound attack do its thing.
"I look forward to every pass play, because we don’t throw a ton," Tabone said. "We have such great backs. It was really special to be able to have an impact on the game; I’ll remember it forever."
Hamler was his primary target, grabbing four passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns. The first touchdown was a 34-yarder on a go route after St. Mary’s ran the ball on its first 15 plays, making it a 15-0 game after two possessions. The second came on a 16-yard catch-and-run off a quick screen pass in the third quarter, making it 22-6.
Like his quarterback, Hamler has to sacrifice his personal ambition for the good of the team.
"I’m always prepared for anything," Hamler said. "I know we’re a running powerhouse team. I’ve just got to prepare to block better. As soon as coach (George) Porritt gives our team a chance to pass the ball, I try my best."
Except for those brief air strikes, St. Mary’s did what St. Mary’s does, running 56 times for 293 yards.
Justin Myrick had 108 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, Troy Marks had 105 yards on 17 carries, Rashawn Allen had 55 yards on 13 carries, and Ryan Johnson had 22 yards on three carries to lead the balanced ground game.
"We have depth in our running backs, so if somebody gets hurt we can put in somebody else," said Myrick, who missed the semifinal victory over East Grand Rapids with an injured hamstring.
The Eaglets repeated as MHSAA champions for only the second time in 13 finals appearances. They won consecutive titles in 1999 and 2000, losing their three-peat bid in a 14-7 loss to Chesaning in 2001.
"At the beginning of the season, we were ranked No. 1 and all that good stuff," said junior linebacker Josh Ross, who had six tackles and an interception. "It was a lot of pressure. We had to come through it. We suffered a bad loss (31-8 to Warren DeLaSalle), which made us bond together as brothers. We came through all that adversity and won the state championship. I couldn’t be prouder of our team."
It looked like St. Mary’s might make a rout of it early. The Eaglets were leading 15-0 when they elected to go for a 33-yard field goal on fourth-and-inches from Chelsea’s 17-yard line on their third possession. John Kwiecinski missed for only the second time in 10 field goal tries this season, opening the door for the Bulldogs (12-2) to get back in the game.
Four plays later, Graham Kuras took a reverse and heaved a 47-yard touchdown pass to Noah vanReesema with 8:22 left in the second quarter. Ralph Holley blocked the extra point, leaving the score at 15-6.
"That’s our go-to trick play," Kuras said. "I was looking over for Noah. Usually, he’s halfway across the field. This time, he wasn’t. I was kind of lost on the play. I saw the safety get drawn up, so I knew he’d be open. I stepped up and threw it. I thought I overthrew it. I saw him step into second gear. That was probably one of the biggest plays in the game. Getting down 15-0 right away, we were kind of low on ourselves. Getting a score like that with the crowd behind us and boosting everyone’s confidence was key to this game. Without that, it could’ve been much worse."
St. Mary’s took that 15-6 lead into halftime, then expanded it to 22-6 on the 16-yard pass to Hamler following a shanked 11-yard punt.
Chelsea was held to only 13 yards on 22 carries, but was able to do some damage through the air. A 14-yard touchdown pass from Jack Bush to Cameron Cooper with 5:07 left in the third quarter got the Bulldogs within 22-12. A 2-point pass that would’ve made it a one-possession margin was incomplete.
The response was a vintage St. Mary’s drive, a 13-play, 80-yard march made up entirely of running plays. The Eaglets took 6:13 off the clock before Myrick scored on a 3-yard run to make it 29-12 with 8:44 left in the game.
The championship was within St. Mary’s grasp once the defense came up with a big goal-line stand on the following Chelsea drive. The Bulldogs had first-and-goal at the 3 before Bush threw an incompletion on fourth-and-goal from the 5 with 5:39 left.
Chelsea would never touch the ball again, as St. Mary’s ran out the final 5:39 with a 10-play, 48-yard drive.
"That’s our football," Porritt said. "That last drive was big-time for us. The last drive and the defensive stop were our M.O. for the year. The defense has come up big in some goal-line situations. Our offense running clock and having long sustained drives has been our football strategy all year."
Bush was 13-for-21 for 145 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He was sacked four times.
While St. Mary’s is a regular visitor to the championship game, it was the first time Chelsea made it this far.
"As sad as it is to be over, I wouldn’t want to end it anywhere else with any other guys or any other team," Kuras said. "It was the experience of a lifetime."