Washington Township – — Romeo carried its strong defensive play into the state playoffs, sending two-time defending Division 1 state champion Clarkston to the sidelines with a 28-14 victory Friday night in the district semifinals.
Romeo (9-1) entered the game as the premier team in Macomb County, ranked No. 9 in The News Super 20 poll, and limiting opponents to 5.5 points per game.
Romeo’s small, but talented front four consisting of Joey Meyers (5-foot-9, 180 pounds), Hunberto Flores (5-8, 175), Jacob Hernden (5-8, 185) and Austin Malczewski limited No. 15 Clarkston to 84 yards through three quarters, holding running back Nolan Eriksen to 21 yards rushing on 10 carries on the slippery, wet natural grass.
Romeo built its lead with big plays, including a 45-yard punt return by Brad Tanner to Clarkston’s 18, setting up his 3-yard run early in the third to open up a 14-0 lead. After a 95-yard kickoff return by Michael Fluegel cut the deficit to 14-7, Romeo answered with Nathan Goralski’s 71-yard touchdown run. The three scores came within a stretch of 73seconds.
Clarkston (6-3) made the game interesting when Alex Kessman found Nolan Eriksen for a 22-yard pass play to the 1 on a fourth-and-2, setting up Eriksen’s 1-yard run to pull within 21-14 with 8:56 remaining.
Clarkston’s 78-yard touchdown drive came after Romeo came within inches of taking a 28-7 lead, failing to get the job done when Paul Hurley’s 22-yard toss to Mitch Heimbuch was wiped off when Heimbuch’s left foot touched the chalk on the sideline.
Hurley and Heimbuch were not to be denied though, answering Clarkston’s score with a 59-yard touchdown connecting on a crossing pattern with 4:06 left for a 28-14 cushion.
Hurley, a third-year starting quarterback, was outstanding, finishing 17-of-24 for 243 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also picked up a first down on a 7-yard run to the Clarkston 7 in the final minutes on a third-and-5.
He found Tanner early and often in the opening quarter, including four times during a 69-yard, 9-play drive to give Romeo a 7-0 lead with 2:58 left in the first on Lucas Schimon’s 3-yard touchdown run.
Kessman brought Clarkston back, completing a pair of third-down passes, one to Hayden Schoenherr and another to Mitch Heaton, but his red zone pass into the end zone was intercepted by Kade Messner who stepped in front of the receiver and returned it to the Romeo 28.
It looked like Romeo would capitalize on the turnover after Hurley connected with Goralski for 35 yards to the Clarkston 29, but Ryan Prisby and Schoenherr followed with consecutive sacks to put Romeo back in its territory, ending the threat.
Then, Kessman went back to work, going 5-for-7 for 61 yards in the final minutes of the half, but on fourth-and-1 from the Romeo 26 with 30 seconds left, Clarkston coach Kurt Richardson decided to go for the 43-yard field goal and Kessman’s kick was wide right.
Kessman finished 16-for-30 for 174 yards, but had two interceptions, including one by Zach Nies with 3:37 left.
Kessman was forced into duty when starter Anthony Reiner went down with a hand injury in Week 3. He led Clarkston to six straight victories to earn a playoff appearance.
Clarkston was its own enemy early in the second half. After returning the second-half kickoff to its 40, Clarkston lost 22 yards on a bad snap on first down, then 11 on another bad snap to set up a third-and-43 from the 7.
On Clarkston’s next drive, it faced a third-and-25 from its 21, leading to another three and out. It was fortunate to get a 95-yard touchdown kickoff return by Fluegel during the stretch.