Farmington Hills — Legendary head coach John Herrington felt his Farmington Hills Harrison team was going to pull out another dramatic win, either in the closing seconds or in overtime in its Division 4 regional championship game with Chelsea Saturday afternoon.
Instead, Herrington’s worst fears were realized when Harrison (8-4) turned the ball over and Chelsea scored with Quinn Starkey finding Aaron McDaniels for a 22-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds remaining for a 21-14 victory at Herrington Sports Complex, closing the books on Harrison’s storied program.
Harrison — which owns 13 state championships — is closing its doors for good following the 2018-19 school year and was trying to win its final home game with semifinal games set to be played on neutral sites.
After Starkey found Hunter Neff for an 11-yard TD pass to pull Chelsea (9-3) even at 14 with 2:07 left, Harrison had the ball at its own 20 with a chance to pull out the win in regulation.
Keel Watson, who transferred to Harrison last month after Detroit Delta Prep closed its doors, found Rod Heard for 18 yards on a screen pass. Then tight end Max Martin made a diving catch at the Harrison 48 before hauling in another Watson pass for 15 yards to the Chelsea 42 with 1:06 remaining.
Things turned bad for Harrison, ultimately ending its season and program, when the snap bounced to Watson who was in shotgun formation.
Instead of falling on the ball, Watson tried to pick it up while having Chelsea defenders chase him down. The ball eluded Watson who then kicked it nearly 15 yards where Chelsea linebacker Nicklas Holmberg pounced on it at the Harrison 22, leading to Starkey’s second TD pass.
“That’s the way it is in football,” said the 77-year-old Herrington who started Harrison’s program in 1970 and departs with a state-record 443 wins. “We just had a couple of mistakes at the end and plays that we knew that were coming, we couldn’t stop them. We had short punts, penalties and a bad snap when I thought we might go down and get a field goal at the end and win it.
“We won a little bit lucky last week and we lost a little bit unlucky this week and that’s the way football is. I thought we had a good chance to win that game and go on, but we didn’t and that’s the way it is. I thought we’d go down and get a field goal and then the snap came rolling back and then he kicked it and gave them a chance to score, which I didn’t think would happen. I thought we were going to overtime again.
“Right now, it’s just like any other game you lost, you feel lousy, but you move on. We’re just not moving anywhere.”
Harrison earned the district title last weekend with a 13-10 overtime win at Detroit Country Day when Heard picked up a botched snap for a would-be field goal to force a second OT and found Martin for the winning TD pass.
Heard, who rushed for 160 yards on 24 carries, gave Harrison a 7-0 lead on its opening drive, picking up 72 yards on 11 carries, including a 14-yard TD run.
After Kyle Knight scored on a 38-yard TD run to pull Chelsea even at 7 with 3:32 left in the second quarter, it looked as if Harrison would carry a 14-7 lead into the locker room, but a chop block in the trenches wiped out Heard’s 24-yard TD reception off a perfectly thrown Watson pass. Watson’s fourth-down pass to Martin from the Chelsea 35 was incomplete, ending the threat.
Heard gave Harrison a 14-7 lead with 5:57 left in the third on a 12-yard TD run.
Harrison looked like it would get good field position after pinning Chelsea deep in the fourth quarter, but Chelsea had a 50-yard punt to give Harrison the ball back at its own 32.
After Chelsea's defense came up with a big stop, Harrison had a short punt to give Chelsea the ball at its own 48, leading to Starkey completing 4 of 6 passes for 49 yards, including the 11-yard scoring toss to Neff with 2:07 remaining.
Chelsea would score 95 seconds later, thanks to Holmberg’s fumble recovery.
“I saw the D-end on my side get to the quarterback with the bad snap and I just thought that he was going to get it and then I saw it squirt out like 15 yards and I took off," Holmberg said. “I don't think I ever ran that fast in my life. I thought about scooping and scoring, but I didn’t know how many people were behind me or if they were close to getting it so I decided to make the safe play and just jumped on top of it. I had never felt that type of adrenaline rush in my life.”
Starkey found McDaniels for the 22-yard TD pass.
“We had a wheel route with the tailback and then a dude sitting in the flat just in case,” said Starkey of his winning TD pass. “We set it up earlier in the game to see how they would react to the tailback flaring out and they didn’t react so we knew it was the perfect play at the perfect time. It was utter joy to see him catch it. I was so happy because people have been counting us out all year except for the dudes we have on this team.”
That was one of the plays that Herrington said Harrison couldn’t stop even though it knew the play was coming.
Starkey completed 15 of 24 passes for 144 yards and the two late TDs, including 10-of-16 for 122 yards during the second half.
So, what did Herrington tell his players after the heartbreaking loss?
“I just told them to be proud of themselves and that they stuck with Harrison,” Herrington said. “It would have been easy to bail out. They stuck with the program, three years of knowing it was going to close, and the juniors especially that stayed in and I appreciate them. I think they won more games than a lot of people thought we would so I’m proud of that.”
Harrison advanced to the Division 3 state championship game at Ford Field last year, losing to Muskegon.
When asked if it was surreal, final home game with the state powerhouse program now ending, Herrington replied: “It seems like just another game. I haven’t talked too much about it, but the only thing I thought about was how Don Meredith on Monday Night Football used to say, 'Turn off the lights the party’s over,' so I guess that’s my quote.”
Heard, a Northwestern commit, rushed for 1,493 yards his senior year and for more than 3,000 yards the past two seasons.
“We definitely started out strong, but got hurt by a lot of penalties, some missed plays, some missed blocks and missed reads and they just came out and beat us,” Heard said. “You don’t always get that storybook ending that you wanted, but you have to keep your head up and keep going. I was all in until that last play, feeling we could win, until that last pick.”