Saline — Joe Palka and his staff have built a powerhouse in his six years at Saline, putting together a 60-9 record and a Division 1 state championship game appearance in 2014.
Saline has always had to go through Canton to make a deep run, earning a 42-35 regional title win in ’14 before having its unbeaten season come to a crashing halt in ’15 in the regional final, 27-7, before getting the best of the Chiefs in last year’s district championship game, 37-31.
This year, Saline plays Canton in a pre-district game Friday night — and at Canton for the first time in the postseason rivalry.
Saline — 7-1 and ranked No. 15 in The Detroit News Super 20 poll — will enter postseason play on a seven-game winning streak after a 14-0 season-opening loss to Rockford at The Big House.
No. 14 Canton has won eight straight, including a 35-21 KLAA championship game win over Livonia Churchill on Friday, piling up 481 yards on the ground in its full-house tight-T formation, along with Conner Engel completing all six of his passes.
“What makes it tough is to get Canton right away, in the past we got them in the regional final or the district final and we’re going to have us, them and (No. 1) Belleville in the same district, but we’re going to have to play them sooner or later and we know them and they know us so that’s what I think makes it a great game,” Palka said.
If any program is capable of beating Canton, then possibly Belleville to make a long run, it’s Saline. With a staff that includes Palka, a former Eastern Michigan assistant coach; defensive coordinator Duane Wilson, who was a coordinator for 20 years at Ferris State; offensive line coach Mike Lyle, a former offensive line coach at Siena Heights; and offensive coordinator Chad O’Brien, a former coordinator at Adrian College.
That type of staff is a reason former Saline players like Josh Jackson and Bryce Wolma have been able to play right away in college, and play well. Jackson, a red-shirt freshman, has thrown for 1,832 yards and 16 TDs (4 INTs) for No. 13 Virginia Tech. Wolma is a true freshman tight end who has 19 receptions for Arizona (5-2), including the winning TD catch in a 45-44 OT win at California on Saturday.
“I’m very proud of them and it’s great to see our kids playing so early and playing so well,” Palka said of the pair.
“We run everything here like a college program so the meetings they’ll have here is like it’s going to be in college and practices are scripted like it will be in college.”
So, what is the strength of Saline’s team?
“Our offensive line has played well all year,” said Palka of the offensive line led by Michigan State-bound tackle Dimitri Douglas, center Zach Drevno and guard Alex Lampman.
“Cole’s (first-year quarterback Daniels) been great. He’s been really efficient and made great decisions. Andrew Diuble has played well in the slot and Brandon Munday has really come on as our running back.”
Daniels has completed 96-of-149 passes for 1,293 yards and 11 TDs with just two interceptions, finding Diuble 29 times for 424 yards and 4 TDs. Daniels hit Emmett Turner 32 times for 402 yards and a TD.
Palka also has high praise for his defense that has been dealt with a series of blows, losing two starters in as many weeks to ACL injuries, including Central Michigan-bound linebacker C.J. Gildersleeve.
“Our defense has been a pleasant surprise for us, our defensive line is much better than we anticipated it to be with Trevor Garbo, Kinsley Amadi, Brad Wisniewski and Danny Weidmayer all playing well, however we lost Danny last week to an ACL tear,” Palko said, noting that Saline has lost four players this season to ACL injuries, including running back Marco Harris and cornerback Drew Richardson.
Amadi plans to play his best to help Saline get past Canton.
“I’m looking forward to playing Canton, we’ve been preparing for them the last two weeks so we’re excited to play them,” said Amadi, a 6-2, 230-pound defensive tackle. “I think our D line has been playing well. We lost a lot of senior leadership from last year, but we’ve surprised a lot of people. I feel we’re really playing well.”
Saline’s defense, which also showcases three-star junior defensive back MJ Griffin, has limited opponents to an average of 8.5 points, though Canton will provide the squad its biggest challenge with its offense that averages 42 points.