Saline — Joe Palka is accustomed to guiding Saline’s football program to deep runs in the state playoffs, including a Division 1 state championship game appearance at Ford Field five years ago, and a state semifinal spot last season.
For that to happen this season, Saline will have to pull off a major upset in a predistrict Saturday when it travels to KLAA champion Belleville, 9-0 and ranked No. 2 in The Detroit News State Super 20.
Palka believes his No. 11 Saline (8-1) team has the talent to get the job done, despite having several sophomores playing big roles — due to need and also because of players capable of making impact plays.
Saline actually lost its top player in the season opener when Air Force-bound linebacker Alex Morrison broke his foot in a 35-21 loss to Chippewa Valley. Morrison played a big role for Saline last season, returning two interceptions for TDs in a 42-7 district final win over East Kentwood.
“This team lost Morrison to start the year, then we played without our starting defensive end, Josh Brannan, the last half of the year,” Palka said. “We really played three sophomores on the offensive line — two of them start and we rotate one in. We start a sophomore quarterback, have a sophomore defensive end and another sophomore running back, so it’s a young team. But we have some seniors who have been fantastic too, like Zach Sabin, our defensive end, and two of our offensive linemen, Carter St. Lawrence and Lance Blaszak.”
Palka wasn’t about to put pressure on sophomore quarterback Larry Robinson, having him split time with junior Anthony Ferrari before handing Robinson the keys for good in Week 5.
Robinson hasn’t looked back in helping Saline outscore its opponents 157-54 in the last three games.
“Larry and Anthony alternated all the way through Week 4 and then in Week 5 we went with Larry,” said Palka of Robinson, who runs a 4.5 40 and has completed 78 percent of his passes for 1,143 yards and 15 TDs with just two interceptions, also averaging more than 10 yards a carry (49-502) and 11 TDs.
“For being a sophomore he’s really calm under pressure and gets us in the right play. He’s really accurate, real efficient with the ball, and what has really elevated his game is his ability to use his feet in our run game and how he can keep plays alive when things are breaking down.”
Robinson is thrilled Palka gave him the opportunity to lead the offense.
“It’s an awesome opportunity,” Robinson said. “I’ve just gone out there and tried to help my team win. It’s been important for me to get the ball to Kolton (Malinczak), Cade (Winston) or (Luke) Darmos — just putting the ball in our playmakers’ hands has been working. We’ve been able to score easily with it, so that’s been our formula.”
Robinson’s primary weapon has been Malinczak, a 5-foot-5, 150-pound senior slot receiver who has 58 receptions for 815 yards and nine TDs.
“When we’re good offensively we usually have a pretty good slot receiver and he’s the next guy,” Palka said. “He was a good player last year but played through injury the whole year and was nowhere near as productive as this season. He’s really the guy we try to feature. We play him in a lot of different spots because he’s small and he’s quick and he’s hard to tackle. He’s also a great punt return, kick return guy.”
Said Malinczak: “I knew I’d step up and play a bigger role, but this is beyond what I expected. Larry has done a great job of getting me the ball, and I’ve been able to execute the plays, stretch some of them out.
“We know it’s going to be a battle (against Belleville), but we’re getting better and more prepared.”
Senior cornerback Noah Nelson has been an impact player on defense, getting interceptions on Temperance Bedford’s final two drives to help Saline come away with a 24-21 Week 6 win in the SEC Red showdown.
“Noah would be the first to say he’s not the fastest corner out there, but he’s really smart and is a good football player,” Palka said. “Every day he does the right thing, and I think a great example of that is when the game was on the line at Bedford. … He comes up big in games. He’s the guy that blocked the extra point last year against Rockford (13-12 regional win) and has just made really athletic plays for interceptions this year and been a stalwart for us in the secondary.”
Nelson has enjoyed his final year and is looking forward to facing Belleville.
“It’s been great, my last year playing football and I’ve been playing with a lot of great guys, so it’s been fun,” said Nelson, who has six interceptions. “We just have to stay focused and not give up the big plays because Belleville makes big plays.”
Nelson has high praise for Robinson, feeling he has matured during the season.
“He’s developed a lot this season, especially on pass plays,” said Nelson. “Early in the season I would read him and sometimes get an interception, but now he’s reading the defense better, passing to the right guy, so it’s tough playing defense against him in practice.”
Palka has the attention of Belleville coach Jermain Crowell. Saline upset Detroit Cass Tech and standout running back Mike Weber while Crowell was defensive coordinator at Cass Tech in the 2014 state semifinals, 30-15.
Saline also defeated Crowell’s Belleville team, 38-7, in a predistrict game in 2016, Crowell’s second year as head coach.
Crowell went on to guide Belleville to its first state playoff win in 15 years in 2017, then to its first regional title in program history last season.
“When we lost to Saline I was just so hurt because that was one of the best (Cass Tech) teams ever,” said Crowell, pointing out that Weber had rushed for a career-high 404 yards and five TDs in a 48-35 regional final win over Chippewa Valley prior to the semifinal loss to Saline.
“I couldn’t believe we lost that game. I’m still hurt. And now I’m sitting here and looking at Saline and it’s one of those deals where, ‘You’re supposed to win because you have more talent,’ but I swear they have one of the best coaching staffs in the state.”
Palka, a former assistant coach at Eastern Michigan, was a Division II head coach at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, in the mid-1990s and gave Dan Pifer his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at St. Joseph’s. Pifer went on to become head coach at Olivet College, guiding Olivet to consecutive MIAA titles in 2015-16 before becoming head coach at Division II Walsh College in 2017, then recruiting coordinator at Bowling Green last year.
This season Pifer joined Palka’s staff at Saline, which also includes former Salem High head coach Kurt Britnell.
Palka also has longtime assistants with him, including defensive coordinator Duane Wilson, a coordinator at Ferris State for 20 years; offensive line coach Mike Lyall, a former assistant coach at Siena Heights; and offensive coordinator Chad O’Brien, a former coordinator at Adrian College.