Detroit — Romeo shocked No. 4 Detroit Cass Tech in the Division 1 state championship game Saturday afternoon at Ford Field, pulling out all the surprises in a 41-27 victory.
Romeo — 13-1 and ranked No. 9 in The News Super 20 poll — scored a pair of TDs in the first five minutes of the second half to take control, coming out to start the third quarter with an onside kick, then blocking a punt to get another short field to work with. Romeo scored on both opportunities to take a 33-14 lead and never trailed.
Romeo's defense played a strong game, making sure-handed tackles after short passes by Cass Tech sophomore quarterback Aaron Jackson to prevent the big play from happening.
Brad Tanner was outstanding for Romeo, rushing for 130 yards (13 carries) and three TDs, scoring on first-half runs of 20 and 31 yards, then a 16-yarder with 1:29 left after Cass Tech (11-3) pulled within 33-27.
"The running back did a good job of getting out in front of me on the jets and I'm telling you when I got the ball around the edge, it was just wide open and I just turned on my jets, cut it up and the results were pretty nice," Tanner said.
Still, Romeo's biggest drive was its last, needing to go 75 yards on 11 plays to eat up the clock while getting into the end zone. Senior quarterback Paul Hurley was at his best, completing all four of his passes for 60 yards, including three to 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior tight end/linebacker Mitch Heimbuch.
"It's all trust in each other and trust in your system," said Hurley, who made plays out of the wing-T and spread formation during the final drive.
Heimbuch, a sure-handed receiver, had two earlier drops during the game but came up big when it mattered most.
"I had the two drops and I'm not really used to dropping the ball too much," said Heimbuch, a Western Michigan commit who had a TD reception in each of the previous four playoff games to advance to the title game. "I just had to get it out of my head and I knew I had to just make plays if the ball came to me."
Heimbuch made sacked Jackson, causing him to fumble at the Cass Tech 40. The defensive play led to a TD and 19-7 cushion in the second quarter.
"We changed the call like last second to a two-linebacker blitz and it just opened up," Heimbuch said of the sack and fumble, which was recovered by Austen Malczewski. "Our D-lineman took the way of the guard and center and I just shot the gap and he just lost the ball, kind of panicked I think."
Romeo co-coach and defensive coordinator Curt Rienas was proud of his unit's play.
"Our kids just played with great effort," Rienas said. "I just think all year we've tried staying aggressive on defense. When you fly around you obviously have to break down to make tackles and that's something the last two years we've really made a huge emphasis on."
Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher was impressed with Romeo's play, but also upset with his own team's inability to recover the onside kick, especially after seeing that play go against it three times in a semifinal win over Canton.
"We talk about it, met about it and then they just froze," Wilcher said. "And, then you watch last week and we lost three onside kicks so that was the most important thing going into the game, that we got all the short kicks."
Wilcher was impressed with Romeo's quickness on the defensive line, led by Hunberto Flores (5-foot-8, 175 pounds), Jacob Hernden (5-8, 175) and Joey Meyers (5-9, 180) going up against Cass Tech's mammoth line of Michael Onwenu (6-3, 350), Jordan Reid (6-4, 285), Ostell Martin (6-5, 315) and Alvin Clemons (6-3, 285).
"I think their linemen played a big role in the run game because they were able to cut us down at the line and not let our guys get up field," Wilcher said. "They did a good job and had a good scheme. I watched it all week long and they didn't change so you had to adapt and if you couldn't adapt then you had a problem. That's all it was.
"We had to adapt to their style of football, low to the ground and it went back to the old-school saying of low man wins."
Cass Tech was limited to 12 first downs and 237 total yards, just 43 rushing on 22 attempts. Jackson was pressed into duty at quarterback following the injury of Rodney Hall (fractured ankle) in the regional final.
"I think he did a great job, listened to us and produced whenever he was asked to produce," praised Wilcher of Jackson who completed 19-of-27 for 194 yards and two TDs, a 17-yarder to Demetric Vance with 2:14 left in the third to cut the deficit to 33-20, then a 36-yard toss to Donovan People-Jones to pull within 33-27 with 7:15 left. "He led our team here and I salute him."
Still, Hurley, Tanner and Romeo would not be denied its first state championship, going on that impressive 11-play, 75-yard drive to start the celebration in front of more than 10,000 fans from the town of Romeo.
"To look up there and see all those fans, it was really overwhelming," Tanner said. "I was just so excited to see them all. I knew it was going to be a fun game, great atmosphere. The whole community was behind us and it was super fun."