Like the saying goes, it’s not the size of the Mustang in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the Mustang.
And members of Northville’s far-from-massive defensive unit fought like middleweight champions during Friday’s Division 1 playoff game against Novi, stonewalling the Wildcats except for two big plays on the way to a 26-14 triumph.
The 8-2 Mustangs advance to next weekend’s district championship game at home against Detroit Catholic Central, which outlasted Dearborn High, 26-21. Novi’s season ended at 5-5.
“We aren’t the biggest team around, but we’re proving that doesn’t matter,” said 5-foot-11, 170-pound outside linebacker Evan Deak. “When you’re a little undersized, you have to do things to make up for it, like playing hard and practicing hard.”
Defense wins championships
Deak was instrumental in holding Novi to back-to-back three-and-outs to open the second half, allowing Northville to expand its 10-7 halftime lead to 19-7 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.
Players like 5-9, 160-pound Cullen Murphy and 5-10, 170-pound Drew Rankin – both defensive backs – joined Deak in delivering several pads-popping jolts throughout the night.
Defensive lineman Graham Gilmartin — although anything but undersized at 6-2, 245 pounds — was a mainstay in the trenches, combining with Hunter Ladach on one pivotal fourth-down sack in the first half before ending another Novi drive in the fourth quarter with a solo sack.
“I like everything about our defense,” Northville Head Coach Matt Ladach raved. “I love their effort, how hard they play and how they play with tremendous discipline. They have 100% bought into everything we teach them and they give it everything they’ve got.”
Offense doing their job
Northville’s offense was cooking, too, scoring on its second play from scrimmage on a 4-yard run by Caleb Moore – one play after senior quarterback Luka Prior took a read-option keeper 69 yards.
“Getting off to a good start offensively was huge, especially because they shut us out in the first half when we played them two weeks ago,” Ladach said. “Scoring on our first drive definitely boosted our confidence.”
The Mustangs’ lead grew to 10-0 with 10:15 left in the first half on Sam Wiest’s 25-yard field goal.
The Wildcats closed their gap to 10-7 at the half when Caleb Walker threw a perfect dime to Boden Fernsler for a 58-yard touchdown, preceding Antonio Cappella’s extra point.
Fueled by a sensational run after catch by sophomore Colin Charles, the Mustangs drove to the Novi 21-yard line in the closing seconds of the half, but Novi sophomore DB Jonathan Aurilia ended the threat with an interception near the goal line.
Northville scored on its first two second-half drives, widening its lead to 13-7 on a 6-minute, 16-second possession that was capped by Wiest’s 42-yard field goal. Northville converted two third-down plays on the drive: one on a Novi late-hit personal foul penalty and another on a long hook-up from Prior to Angelo Rodriguez.
The most-electric play of the game came with 3:05 to play in the third when Nolan Thomsen went horizontal to haul in a 32-yard TD pass from Prior – despite tight coverage by a pair of Novi defenders.
“Nolan and I kind of drew that one up on the fly,” Prior said. “He’s an athlete and athletes make great plays. Right before that he said, ‘Luka I got you, I got you.’ I just put it out there and he made a play.”
Sealed the victory
Northville put the game on ice with 10 minutes left on a 3-yard jet-sweep TD by Rodriguez.
Novi’s final points came on a 72-yard scoring run from Cole Shires with 2:04 remaining.
The district championship game (it will be played either Friday or Saturday at Northville) will be compelling, given the two schools’ proximity and the fact that many of the players know each other from junior league football.
The Mustangs will be looking for their first win over CC following three previous setbacks. The two teams last met in a 2013 first-round playoff game that the Shamrocks won, 35-14.
“We embrace the challenge,” Ladach said. “There’s no doubt it will be a tall task, but these kids embrace every challenge that comes before them and this game will be no different.”
Northville will be in search of its first district title in 22 years, Ladach reminded his team in his postgame message.
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