By Jim Newell
ORION TWP. — Heading into Friday night’s district final football game at Lake Orion, Clarkston head coach Justin Pintar knew it was going to be a tough battle if his team wanted to keep their playoff run hopes alive.
And it was “heart” and “grit” that led the Wolves to a comeback victory over the Dragons, the coach said.
Clarkston (6-5) defeated Lake Orion 38-37 in the MHSAA District 5 final at Lake Orion High, raising the district championship trophy after rallying to come from behind late in the fourth quarter down two scores with only 3:47 left in the game.
“The heart, the grit. I love this team guys, I love this team. What a performance,” Pintar said to his players after the game. “For us to bounce back and play the way we have the last couple of weeks, guys, why not us? I’m going to keep saying that, why not us? There’s no reason. That’s as good a football team as there is in the state. There’s no reason that we can’t keep this going and get down to Ford Field in a few weeks.”
Clarkston now travels to West Bloomfield (9-2) on Friday for the MHSAA Division 1 Regional 3 game. West Bloomfield beat Utica Eisenhower 24-6 on Friday.
Lake Orion and Clarkston have played each other more than each has played any other team, with Clarkston leading the series 34-24 heading into the game. The Dragons (10-1), ranked third in the state, had previously defeated the Wolves 42-21 Oct. 6 at Clarkston High School.
Pintar knew it was going to be a tough battle against the Dragons, and the team made some adjustments heading into the game.
“I told the kids before the game that this was going to be one of those 12-round heavyweight battles. We felt good about some of the scheme things we were going to change up a little bit offensively, so we thought we might be able to do a better job than we did last game,” Pintar said. “And the other thing we knew was that we needed to come out with a little more fire than we did the last time we played (Lake Orion) and take care of the football. For the most part I thought we did that.”
Just 40 seconds into the game, Lake Orion running back Billy Roberson fumbled the ball and Clarkston strong safety Lukas Boman recovered it on the Wolves’ 45-yard line.
That turnover resulted in the Wolves marching down the field over the next 4:47 minutes. With 5:32 to go in the first quarter, wide receiver Desman Stephens ran the ball into the Dragons’ end zone to put the Wolves on the board first.
Roberson tied the game 7-7 on a rushing touchdown with 2:02 left in the first quarter, and quarterback T.R. Hill scored with 6:01 left in the second quarter to put the Dragons up 14-7. The first half ended with the Dragons up by seven.
Clarkston kicked a field goal at 8:14 of the third quarter, making 14-10, but the Dragons answered just over four minutes later with a field goal of their own, increasing their lead to 17-10.
Wolves’ quarterback Brady Collins tied the game at 17 with 8:54 to go in regulation on a 23-yard run to cap off a 70-yard, 12-play drive that ate up 5:51 on the clock.
The Dragons quickly dashed the Wolves’ comeback hopes when just two minutes later Roberson scored another rushing TD to put Lake Orion up 24-17. Andrew Parker then intercepted a Collins pass and scored with 6:36 left in the game, giving Lake Orion a 31-17 lead.
Collins redeemed himself with an 18-yard TD pass to Colin Kortman with 3:59 left in the game, and a successful two-point conversion made it 31-25.
Lake Orion countered on the kickoff when Roberson had a 71-yard return for a TD. The Dragons missed a two-point attempt but still held a 37-25 with 3:47 to go.
The Wolves quickly countered with an 80-yard touchdown on a pass from Collins to tight end Brody Kozin just 13 seconds later, making it 37-32 after the extra point kick.
With 3:34 left in the game, the Wolves tried an onside kick and recovered the ball on the Dragons’ 47-yard line, but a penalty put the ball back on the Wolves’ own 43.
“When we got it down to six and they had that kick return for a touchdown we easily could have quit. A lot of teams would have, honestly, quit in that moment, in that situation, and we didn’t. We just kept grinding and guys made plays. Brody (Kosin) made the big catch and run for a touchdown on the throw from Brady Collins. And we got the great onside kick,” Pintar said. “They never wavered, they never quit.”
On fourth and 16 with 2:46 to go, Collins completed a pass to Stephens for a first down on the Dragons’ 29-yard line. The Dragon defense held off any Wolves attempt to drive further down field and pushed Clarkston back to the 41-yard line.
On fourth and 22 with 1:55 left in the game Clarkston had no choice but to go for a first down. Collins completed a pass to Kosin, who pulled down the ball in double coverage, keeping the Wolves’ hopes alive with a first down.
“Brady, he played a heck of a game last week. He’s very composed for a sophomore, he’s very mature for a sophomore and he just keeps getting better and better,” Pintar said. “He’s taken some big hits all game long and that kid’s tough as nails, he never backs down.
With just 47.6 seconds left on the clock, Griffin Bowman ran the ball into the end zone to give the Wolves a 38-37 lead. A two-point conversion attempt after the touchdown failed.
The Dragons then began a last-minute drive up the field but the Lake Orion quarterback, under pressure from the Wolves’ defense, threw an interception with 22.9 seconds left in the game, sealing the victory for the Wolves, who took a knee on the next play.
“I knew this was going to be a heck of a game, a heck of a battle. We got some lucky bounces there at the end, making some plays when we needed to. Sometimes that’s how it goes,” Pintar said. “Lake Orion, I think they’re as good as anybody in the state, and that’s what I told our guys is that if we can beat this team there’s no reason why we can’t beat anybody else out there.
“Credit to these guys for not quitting, for not backing down. They never quit, they never stopped battling even when we were in fourth and long. Guys went up and made plays,” Pintar said. “Hats off to Lake Orion, that’s an outstanding football team.
“The (Clarkston) seniors, they’re the ones that kind of lead this, it’s a team effort. I’m just happy to be playing for one more week. Hopefully, we’re playing for another two or three weeks.”
The Wolves previously beat West Bloomfield 44-36 on Sept. 29.
“It’ going to be kind of the flip of this, right? We beat them the first time and they’re going to be hungry for that rematch and they’re a super talented team.,” Pintar said. “Anytime we’ve ever played West Bloomfield it’s been a battle.”
By Jim Newell