One and (not) done: Walled Lake Western, Clarkston forge ahead after defeats

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Western coach Mike Zdebski heard questions after the loss. “I got it in the Kroger deli — people asked what happened,” Zdebski said.

Walled Lake — The chants started late in the fourth quarter, with the game pretty well in hand at Walled Lake Western

“Over-rated! Over-rated!” the Waterford Mott student section bellowed from across the field.

Mott was in the final minutes of a 47-37 shocker over Western on Friday in what’s becoming all too common: surprising upsets in Oakland County. The top two teams in The News’ North rankings, Western (3-1) and No. 2 Clarkston (3-1), both fell on Friday.

Clarkston lost to West Bloomfield (2-2), which is itself trying to salvage its season, after dropping its first two games — including an opening loss to Western.

It’s a reality that high school coaches preach to their players every year: one loss doesn’t ruin a season; instead, it’s how that team bounces back from the loss and finishes out the season.

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Western coach Mike Zdebski knows the pressure all too well. The Warriors hadn’t been on the losing end of the scoreboard in the regular season since a 20-17 loss to Mott — back in 2014. Western fell in the state semifinals in 2015 and lost to Detroit King in the Division 2 championship game last season.

This season, they were looking to take the next step. Those hopes took a temporary detour after Friday’s flop.

“It was total silence; you could hear a pin drop,” Zdebski said of the postgame scene in the locker room. “The tough part is in the community and answering questions.”

And the Western players took notice, as well, trying to figure out what went wrong, after Mott quarterback David McCullum passed for 340 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 82 yards and another score.

The Warriors were back at it on the practice field on Tuesday, looking to shore up their mistakes on defense, which gave up big play after big play, while the offense committed costly penalties. Then, when standout quarterback Sam Johnson III suffered an injury, Western’s offense struggled to get back in gear.

After the loss, Zdebski heard the questions. It’s the pressure of raised expectations, which Western has earned, with its recent success, as well as state championships in 1996 and ’99. They’re small-time celebrities in their community — and they’re lauded in the wins, but also questioned in the losses.

“I got it in the Kroger deli — people asked what happened,” Zdebski said.

The players, who had relished the rankings in the past few weeks, also heard about the fallout on social media

“We do look at it,” Johnson admitted. “Now the focus is on our team in practice and we have to stay focused.”

Doubt started to creep in

Johnson, a junior who transferred from Southfield A&T in January, helped Western level up on their swagger. Johnson, who is drawing interest from Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, has passed for over 1,000 yards and 13 total touchdowns in four games.

But after Johnson couldn’t finish the game and Mott continued to surge, doubt started to creep in for some of the other players. After comfortable wins in the last two games, things just fell apart.

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“It was shocking,” senior defensive back Randall Harris said. “We were just wondering what to do now.”

Enter junior Kevin Jackson, who had two receiving touchdowns and finished the game at quarterback on Friday — and might be called upon again if Johnson isn’t ready to play this week against cross-town rival Walled Lake Northern.

Zdebski and his coaching staff spent Monday poring over the game video with the players and Tuesday was dedicated to picking up the pieces and putting the puzzle back together to get their swag back.

They focused on the little things. Zdebski reamed a player for half effort.“That’s the same thing that gave up a 58-yard play in Friday’s game,” he said.

Zdebski also balanced it with bigger lessons: “We can’t do anything about last week or the last practice or anything in the past. All we can do is get better now.”

Pushing on after a loss

It’s Week 5 and while Western is three wins from another spot in the playoffs, just getting back to the playoffs isn’t good enough anymore.

“It’s weird because everyone expects us to go undefeated,” sophomore receiver Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen said.

It’s not just weird; it’s rare, given their track record in the regular season. The last time they lost twice in the regular season was 2012 — the second of which was to Northern.

In their streak of sustained success, they have just one losing season (3-6 in 2009) since 1995. Western also made the state semifinals in 2001 and ’11, having built one of the better resumes in the area.

“As long as people don’t rest on the past and live on and push on what we’ve done as a public school, we’ll be OK,” Zdebski said.

“As long as the parents can say ‘That’s a well-coached team,’ (we’re fine).”

And that’s expected, with their success.