Just when things looked incredibly dire Friday night for Northville’s football team, the Mustangs ignited a fire.
And we’re not talking a few flames here; it was more like an inferno.
Trailing longtime nemesis Novi Detroit Catholic Central 17-10 with four minutes to play, the host Mustangs stormed back to win a 24-17 classic — avenging a 42-17 Shamrock victory in last season’s District title game.
Northville (10-1) captured its first District championship since 2000 and earned a berth in next weekend’s Division 1 quarterfinal showdown against the winner of Saturday’s Saline-at-Belleville game.
“When I was interviewing for the job in front of the returning seniors nine months ago, I put a picture of a championship trophy — the wooden mitten — in my slideshow and I told them, ‘You’re going to win one of these and never be forgotten in this school’s history,” said first-year head coach Brent Luplow, moments after his biggest win as a head coach. “And it culminated tonight.
“I can’t tell the future, but I told them that day that if they bought in, it can happen.
“They didn’t have to believe in me; I mean, I’m 29 years old and had never been a head coach. But the players bought in, the coaching staff bought in and now here we are.”
Luplow praised the bond his team’s upperclassmen have forged since their playing days as second- and third-graders with the Northville Stallions.
“These kids love each other and it started way back then,” he said. “There is a direct correlation between the bond they built in elementary school and the success they’re experiencing now.
“They weren’t going to give up on each other tonight.”
As Luplow spoke, his players could be seen hugging one another, soaking in the euphoria that comes with one of the most memorable wins in the school’s history.
“Oh my gosh, this is crazy,” said Evan Deak, who ran for a team-high 89 yards, scored the game-winning touchdown with 50 seconds left, and racked up five tackles on defense.
“This feels so good, especially after last year when they kicked the crap out of us. We’ve got a really good group this year and everyone deserves to celebrate this. Props to CC — they gave us a heckuva fight.”
Among the most impactful plays came with just over four minutes remaining, CC leading 17-10 and facing a fourth-and-4 scenario from the Northville 33-yard line.
Shamrock quarterback Jaden Pydyn faked a run and threw a short pass in the right flat to H-back Nico Genrich, who caught the ball and appeared on his way to gaining a first down.
Murphy rises to occasion
However, one yard from reaching the yard to gain, Genrich was wrapped up by Mustang senior Cullen Murphy, who held on for dear life until Deak joined in to stymie the play and give Northville the ball at its own 30.
“They run this sneaky play, and we knew they were going to run it all week,” Murphy said, describing CC’s fourth-down attempt.
“We thought they would run it more often early in the game, but they ran it there on fourth down. I saw it, ran to the H-back and made a play.”
“If Cullen doesn’t make that play, they keep the ball and — who knows?,” Luplow said. “Definitely a huge play.”
Even with the massive stop, there was still work to be done — and senior quarterback Isaac Pace embraced the role as the foreman.
Needing a touchdown to tie and just 4:03 left, Pace marched the Mustangs 70 yards on seven plays — completing all four of his passes (including two to Murphy), the last of which was a 9-yard scoring toss to Nick Helner, who high-pointed the ball over CC defensive back D’Andre Green. Sonny Rentz’s extra point knotted the game at 17-all with 1:55 to go.
Arguably the biggest play of the game came with 51 seconds left and CC facing a third-and-8 from its own 36. Quarterback Beau Jackson dropped back and was separated from the ball by Graham Gilmartin, who recovered the fumble at the CC 20.
“That was a big-time play by a big-time leader,” Deak said of Gilmartin’s game-changer. “I honestly don’t know if we win the game if that play doesn’t happen. I can’t praise Graham enough.”
Running out of the Wildcat formation on the first play after Gilmartin’s heroics, Deak took a keeper around the right end and swept into the end zone, capping a Hollywood-esque comeback.
“At the team dinner before the game tonight I was telling everyone that tonight was one of the biggest nights of our lives,” Pace recounted.
“I said, ‘Let’s make the most of it’. And we did.”
Northville led 10-3 at the half. After both teams’ kickers exchanged field goals (Rentz hit from 30 yards out and CC’s Jake Matigian connected from 38), Northville junior speedster Colin Charles took the kick-off following Matigian’s three-pointer 90 yards to paydirt.
CC scored the equalizer early in the third quarter on a 48-yard scamper by Pydyn, who initially appeared hemmed in by the Mustang defense before breaking a pair of tackles and outracing the Northville secondary to the end zone.
The Shamrocks grabbed their first lead late in the third quarter when Matthew Williams secured a pitch from Pydyn and sprinted 71 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
For a while, it appeared that would be the difference in a game that will be talked about for several years in Northville.
But the Mustangs’ band of brothers refused to be denied.
“I never could have imagined I’d be watching hundreds of students streaming onto the field to celebrate with our team after beating CC,” Luplow said, reflecting on the post-game scene at mid-field.
“But when you believe in yourself and your teammates, anything is possible.”
Ed Wright can be reached at 734-664-4657 or email@example.com.