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Prep Insider: Walled Lake Western rallies to stay alive

David Goricki
The Detroit News

It’s all about surviving and advancing in the postseason and Walled Lake Western did just that Friday night, coming back from a 24-10 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat South Lyon, 31-30, in a Division 2 opener.

Walled Lake Western (9-1) has been ranked No. 2 in The News Super 20 poll all season but had to rally back from a 27-14 third-quarter deficit in a Week 2 win (33-30) at Canton, so it didn’t get rattled when things didn’t go well early against South Lyon (5-5).

“The issue early on was we didn’t handle their pressure,” Western coach Mike Zdebski said of South Lyon’s pass rush. “We were rolling through some offensive linemen in the first half and once we solidified the offensive line situation and the protection we were able to move the ball.

“This is the playoffs and things are different, emotions are high. We’ve had games like this, even when we won it (state title) in ’99, going back to ’96, the other times when we made it to the semis. It helped to have a game like Canton where you can look back on, knowing you can get the job done.”

Western rallied behind the passing combination of Johnny Tracy, a transfer from Birmingham Brother Rice, and Michigan State-bound receiver Cody White.

First, Tracy scrambled out of pressure and found White, who broke his route in double coverage, for an 8-yard touchdown pass to pull Western within 24-17.

Tracy again found White on a short pass that turned into a big gain and set up Jalen Marshall’s 5-yard touchdown run to pull even at 24.

Tracy hooked up with White on a 10-yard scoring toss with two minutes left to take a 31-24 advantage before South Lyon made things interesting in the final minute, scoring a touchdown and going for a two-point conversion to try to win the game.

“It was predetermined they were going for two and their quarterback (Carlo Zoratti) made a nice pass and receiver ran a nice route, but our outside linebacker Matt Alati made an exceptional play and broke up the play,” said Zdebski.

Alati has been an impact player for Western all season, blocking five punts and field goals.

Tracy completed 15 of 24 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns.

This week's top high school football playoff games

“This was his first playoff game and early on his passes were high because he was really pumped up and ready to go,” Zdebski said. “He’s such a conscientious kid who wants to do well. He’s also very smart and keeps his composure. He’ll do better and better as he moves forward.”

White had high praise for his quarterback.

“He came out and showed a lot of toughness, made a bunch of throws that helped us and guided us to that win and was a great leader Friday night,” White said. “It was a great win for us, showed our toughness, that we can come back from any challenge.

“That game showed us we can’t take anything for granted. It’s playoff time and we have to come out and play our hardest every game.”

Western hosts the district title game Friday against Pinckney (8-2), a 28-17 winner over Walled Lake Northern.

Hankerson makes grand return

Novi pulled off an upset with a 5-4 record for the second consecutive year.

Senior running back Nathan Hankerson returned from a knee injury to rush for 181 yards (30 carries) and a touchdown in a 38-9 rout at Brighton. (Last year, Novi defeated an unbeaten West Bloomfield team.)

And, Novi is looking to do more damage this weekend when it plays at No. 3 Detroit Catholic Central (10-0), a team it gave a scare to last year, losing 49-35 in a Division 1 district-title game.

Why does Novi have a chance against Catholic Central? Well, it has regained tremendous balance on offense with Hankerson back. He had knee surgery after rushing for a school-record 276 yards (20 carries, three TDs) in a 42-14 win in Week 4 over South Lyon East.

“He had a meniscus issue and he had some quick surgery and when they (surgeons) were in there, they found out it wasn’t as bad, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact with how he trained in the offseason,” Novi coach Jeff Burnside said. “He really built all those ligaments around that knee area. We knew we were going to miss him for a few weeks. We were hoping we’d get him back for the (regular-season final) against Franklin, but he just wasn’t quite ready.

“He had a good week of physical therapy so he had to come late to practice, but you could already see he had that burst, that burst that only he has. He branched out to running back this week (scout player in practice) to knock the rust off and made our defense look silly at times. He picked up our pace a lot.”

Hankerson (990 yards, eight TDs, 7.1 average) aids the passing attack led by quarterback Alec Bageris and receiver Anthony D’Annibale. Bageris completed 17 of 24 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns against Brighton, with D’Annibale catching 12 for 120 yards and a touchdown.

Bageris has completed 61.2 percent of his passes for 1,743 yards and 23 TDs this season. D’Annibale has 80 receptions, including 12 receptions for 223 yards and a Class A/Division 1 state record six TDs in a season-opening 49-28 win over Hartland.

“If you load the box, we’re going to try and shoot you one-on-one and if you’re going to commit too many in the secondary, we’re going to try and run the ball,” Burnside said. “We have a good triggerman in Alec who is making good decisions.”

Oak Park facing King

Oak Park coach Greg Carter believes his team has been tested and is prepared for its upcoming district final game against defending Division 2 state champion Detroit King.

Oak Park (7-3) has won seven of its last eight games since an 0-2 start, beating Clarkston, Farmington Hills Harrison and Rochester Adams. It opened the season with losses to Detroit Cass Tech (45-27) and Birmingham Groves (13-12).

“Every week in our league (OAA White) is a playoff game, it’s a struggle to even make the playoff,” said Carter, noting that Harrison (5-4) failed to make the playoffs this season. “Playing in those games prepares you for the playoffs.”

Oak Park led No. 1 Detroit Cass Tech, 21-14, before falling. Cass Tech also handed King its two setbacks, 31-18, and 41-20 in the Detroit Public School League final.

On Friday, Najee Trinity rushed for 167 yards (33 carries) and scored two first-half touchdowns in Oak Park’s 26-17 win over U-D Jesuit.

Oak Park has a chance to do damage against King because of its mammoth offensive line, which includes Michigan-bound tackle JaRaymond Hall (6-5, 280), four-star junior guard Marquan McCall (6-4, 320) and 6-4, 280-pound freshman tackle Justin Rogers.

Hall is expected to return to the lineup after missing the U-D Jesuit game with an ankle injury.

“Trinity played exceptionally well and Dylan Stackhouse, our other running back, also did a good job and our offensive line really stepped up,” Carter said. “We should have JaRaymond back for the King game.”

The coach is also encouraged with the play of sophomore quarterback Dwan Mathis, a transfer from Belleville.

“He’s progressing and is getting better and better every week,” Carter said. “That was his first playoff game. He’s going to be special.”

Extra points

Jeremy Burrell put on a show for No. 17 Benton Harbor (10-0) in a 48-28 Division 4 win over Grand Rapids South Christian.

Burrell, a senior running back, had 442-all-purpose yards and six touchdowns. He rushed for 392 yards and five TDs while also scoring on a 50-yard reception.

Burrell has 2,105 rushing yards on the season.

... Charles Caine also put on a show for unbeaten Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in its 63-35 win over Rochester Hills Lutheran Northwest in Division 7.

Caine rushed for 260 yards and five touchdowns and had six receptions for 130 yards and two scores.

Liggett’s reward is a district final date against Detroit Loyola.