‘Unleash the beast’: Cass Tech burner Johnson running wild

David Goricki The Detroit News
Cass Tech running back Donovan Johnson (2) tries to slip a Saline defender in the first half.

Donovan Johnson showed why he is considered among the fastest high school football players in the nation Friday night, running wild for 292 yards and four touchdowns to lead No. 1 Detroit Cass Tech to a thrilling 43-42 comeback win over No. 5 Saline in a Division 1 regional final.

“We knew we had a good (running) back in Donovan, and when you have the fastest kid in the country you have to unleash the beast, give him the ball, get him in space and let him go,” Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher said of Johnson.

Johnson, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior, clocked in with the fastest 40 time of 4.35 in The Opening showcase this past summer in Oregon. He was the 60-meter national indoor champion last winter.

With Cass Tech trailing 28-21 midway through the second quarter, Johnson took a handoff, broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage and then hurdled one defender down the right sideline for an 80-yard touchdown to pull even at 28-28.

On the first play of the second half, Johnson again took a handoff and burst up the middle for a 71-yard touchdown run for a 35-28 cushion.

Saline coach Joe Palka left impressed with Johnson, saying: “He has great athleticism, able to turn what normally would be a seven-yard run into a touchdown. Even when we had people in the right spots and we had proper leverage on him, he still was able to run around us or make us miss. Just a pretty impressive player.”

Michigan and Michigan State have yet to extend an offer to Johnson, who also plays defensive back and is a kick returner.

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Johnson has taken an official visit to Virginia Tech and has one planned for Penn State following the season. He is also interested in Missouri, West Virginia, Arizona and Pittsburgh.

Johnson feels confident heading into Saturday’s semifinal with No. 4 Utica Eisenhower at Troy Athens. Defending state champion Romeo will face No. 3 Detroit Catholic Central in the other semifinal at Howell with the winners advancing to the title game Nov. 26 at Ford Field.

This will be the first time since 2007 that the teams making up the Division 1 final four are from the metro Detroit area.

“That game definitely boosts my confidence more and we’re just going into practice and prepare (for Eisenhower), knowing they have a good defense,” Johnson said. “I think Rodney (quarterback Hall) is playing great, showing leadership, just putting the offense on his back and putting us in good places. We have a lot of weapons and defenses can’t prepare to just stop one of us.”

Eisenhower has limited opponents to less than eight points a game, earning 42-7 wins over Macomb Dakota and Southfield A&T the last two weeks of the playoffs.

“You can’t make any mistakes when you play a team like Cass Tech and you have to take advantage of mistakes that they may make because they have a very talented team,” Eisenhower coach Chris Smith said. “We have a lot of confidence in our defense. The kids dream of playing in a game like this for a shot to get in the state championship game. The coaching staff is excited about preparing for this game.”

Smith should be proud of a defense that has limited opponents to less than 700 yards rushing, just two yards per carry.

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Catholic League strong

The Catholic League is flexing its muscles with Detroit Catholic Central still alive in Division 1, Dearborn Divine Child and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in Division 3 and Detroit Loyola in Division 7.

Divine Child will face defending state champion St. Mary’s in a semifinal Saturday at West Bloomfield. Edwardsburg (12-0) faces No. 6 Muskegon in the other semifinal at East Kentwood.

Divine Child has made one of the biggest turnarounds in the state, going from 4-5 last year to 10-2 this season, including a 28-21 upset victory over previously unbeaten No. 9 Allen Park in a regional.

Theo Day has enjoyed a breakout season for Divine Child, completing 64 percent of his passes and throwing for 1,508 yards and 21 touchdowns with Northern Illinois commit and 6-foot, 7-inch tight end Liam Soraghan (32 receptions, 341 yards, 13 touchdowns) being his main target.

Day, a 6-5, 200-pound junior, has already received offers from Central Michigan, Kentucky, Toledo and Northern Illinois.

“Liam Soraghan has been a big target for Theo, he’s really good, caught two touchdown passes against Allen Park,” said Divine Child third-year coach John Filiatraut. “St. Mary’s is a terrific team that’s loaded with talent. They play very disciplined and they don’t beat themselves. We’re happy to be here. We know to be the best you have to beat the best so we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Loyola (10-2) will play Cassopolis (11-1) Saturday in Jackson.