Detroit — Clarkston showed the heart of a champion and played for the win after scoring a touchdown with 23 seconds left to pull within 31-30 of No. 2 Chippewa Valley Saturday afternoon in the Division 1 state championship game at Ford Field.
After senior quarterback Jake Jensen directed a 78-yard TD drive, completing five passes for 58 yards, capped off with a 7-yard TD strike to Matt Miller, legendary Clarkston coach Kurt Richardson went for the win, but the two-point conversion was shut down when Chippewa Valley defensive end Michael Garwood grabbed Josh Luther on the reverse just inside the 5 and tossed him to the turf.
Luther was expected to pass to Jensen, who had flipped the ball to running back Jake Billette, then run his route, but Luther ran right and couldn’t get away from Garwood while Clarkston tight end Brendan Barker was left wide open in the end zone.
“It was a great high school football game,” said Richardson (256-89, 32 years), who had guided Clarkston to state titles in 2013, '14 and '17. “As far as going for two, we’ve been aggressive forever and that’s the way we play football and it didn’t work, but I wouldn’t change the call.
“The offensive guys felt they had a great call and I stick with them 100 percent. We were all in on it and hey, it is what it is.”
Said Jensen: “We’ve been working on that play in practice for a couple of weeks now. I was the intended receiver. I was supposed to leak out and get behind the corner or DB and Josh was supposed to lob it over, but things didn’t fall our way that play.”
It was Chippewa Valley’s first state championship since it came away with the Division 2 championship trophy at the Pontiac Silverdome in 2001.
Chippewa Valley has been close before, losing in the final seconds to Detroit Cass Tech in last year’s regional final.
And, it looked like Chippewa Valley could suffer another heartbreaking loss with Luther taking the handoff from Billette, but Garwood wouldn’t let it happen.
“Michael Garwood stayed home on the back side and did a great job keeping contain on the back side,” 10th-year Chippewa Valley head coach Scott Merchant said. “I think they had somebody open in the end zone, but Michael was right there.
“That’s a tough throw, you’re rolling to your right and it’s not your quarterback and you have a guy in your face so it was a great job by Michael. He (Garwood) usually plays 100 mph, sometimes he gets caught, but did a heck of a job right there.”
Did the two-point conversion attempt surprise Merchant?
“It’s football, nothing surprises me,” Merchant said. “I give Coach Richardson all the credit in the world. He went for the win and I don’t think anybody can second guess that. I mean, everybody will, but I think it’s a great call by him. He went for the win. They’re the champs and he wants to be the champion again. If they make the play, they are sitting here.”
Chippewa Valley had multiple other stars to complete its perfect 14-0 season, including three-year starting quarterback Tommy Schuster, who was a perfect 13-for-13 for 205 yards, including TD tosses of 26 and 25 yards to Martice Bunting.
Schuster’s 100 percent completion rate was a State Finals record for a quarterback. He is still without a Division I or Division II offer despite throwing for 26 TDs with just one interception this season.
And, don’t forget Indiana-bound David Ellis, who returned a kickoff 94 yards for a TD with 26 seconds left in the half to open a 24-10 lead, answering Clarkston’s TD that came with 41 seconds remaining.
How big was Ellis’ TD? No. 11 Clarkston (11-3) had played and had success at Ford Field before with the three state titles while Chippewa Valley was making its first title game appearance at the site.
Chippewa Valley showed no signs of nerves or fear in the opening half, instead taking advantage of its opportunity to play on the big stage.
Chippewa Valley scored on its first three drives with Schuster masterful while directing them, connecting on all six of his passes for 104 yards, including a perfectly thrown 36-yard TD toss to Bunting for a 14-0 lead while Andrew Chenault did a great job with the running attack to showcase a balanced attack. Chenault finished with 67 yards on 12 carries.
Ellis, a senior receiver/defensive back, has been an impact player in all three phases all season, busting loose for a 99-yard TD run in the regional final against Dearborn Fordson to open a 35-7 halftime lead.
Ellis talked of his kickoff return.
“He squibbed the ball so I just tried to make something happen, anything to get field position for the offense. The play was supposed to go up the middle and I just saw a hole to the left, broke it and just ran as fast as I could and happened to make it (to the end zone).”
Ellis’ return could have been a backbreaker for Clarkston, but Richardson said it just showed his players’ character.
“Really, I think that it was a moment that really defined these guys,” Richardson said. “That’s a time when you go, ‘Oh, OK, it’s just not going to work today,’ and they didn’t give up. They kept scrapping and they didn’t give up. Chip Valley would answer and then we’d answer. It was just a great high school football game.”
Clarkston pulled within 24-17 midway through the third when Billette converted three straight third down conversions, including a 5-yard TD run with 5:51 left.
But, then Schuster led an 80-yard drive, first eluding defensive lineman Rocco Spindler — who had slammed him to the ground on the previous play on a run — to find Ellis for a 30-yard pass play to the Clarkston 39, then avoiding the blitz to find Bunting for a 25-yard TD toss and 31-17 lead with 1:20 left in the third.
“He’s a great player, that was a really hard hit actually, one of the hardest I’ve taken,” Schuster said of Spindler. “He came after me that next play and we had a two-side option screen and I just saw David (Ellis) and got rid of it.”
Clarkston wasn’t about to go away. Jensen showed his elusiveness throughout the game, running for 30 yards to set up Billette’s TD run midway through the third, then scoring himself on a 45-yard TD run in the final minute of the third to cut the deficit to 31-24.
Jensen then showed what he could do through the air on Clarkston’s final drive to get the fans out of their seats. He finished with 121 yards rushing (nine carries) while completing 10-of-15 for 110 yards.
After Garwood’s stop on the two-point conversion, Chippewa Valley had the chance to finally realize what it felt like to lift the Division 1 championship trophy.
“Obviously, last year we lost to Cass Tech in the regionals and we made it a point all offseason that we wanted to get back and then end up winning the state championship,” Schuster said. “We worked our butts off all off season and made it happen.”