Division 5: On further review, Lansing Catholic storms back to beat Almont

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Detroit — Had it been any other week, or any other place, maybe this one turns out differently. But this was the Division 5 title game at Ford Field, where all the bells and whistles, and most importantly, the high-definition cameras, come out to play.

Officials used replay to reverse two fourth-quarter calls that wound up awarding Lansing Catholic a turnover, and later, the winning 23-yard touchdown catch by Mitch Raphael in a 31-17 victory over Almont to claim its second state title and first since 1985.

Lansing Catholic quarterback Zach Gillespie (2) reacts after running in for a touchdown against Almont in the first quarter.

“Thank God for replay,” said Lansing Catholic head coach Jim Ahern. Ahern won his 300th career game in last week’s semifinal victory over Detroit Denby, and this past week, his players made sure to make known what they played for on Saturday.

“The message all week was ‘Let’s get him to 301,’ ” said senior linebacker Sam Edwards. “To be able to put on the jersey and play for this guy, it’s kind of bittersweet that we won’t get to do it again. There’s no one that deserves it more than this guy right here.

“Just the greatest guy, greatest coach, and I love him to death.”

And to be fair to Ahern, it’s tough to point at outside factors as the reason for his team putting up 24 unanswered points after falling behind 17-7 in the third quarter, and coming up with a whopping five turnovers in the second half. Besides, this is what Lansing Catholic (13-1) has done all season.

BOX SCORE: Lansing Catholic 31, Almont 17

“Week 5, we were playing Portland,” said senior linebacker Sam Edwards, referencing a one-point defeat in September, Lansing Catholic’s only loss of the season.

“Got that (weather) delay, came back Saturday down 21-7 with a fresh half, and we’ve just kind of carried that. We write it on the board at halftime: 21-7 mentality.”

Edwards finished with 19 tackles, two recovered fumbles, an interception and a sack, Zack Stone intercepted two passes and senior quarterback Zach Gillespie ran for two touchdowns and went 11-for-23 passing with touchdown throws to Raphael and Vince Salquist for Lansing Catholic. Jack Paupert ran for 78 yards and a touchdown on 18 attempts and intercepted a pass on defense and Landon Kruse had six tackles and an interception for Almont (13-1).

The first ruling overturned by replay came just moments after Lansing Catholic tied things up at 17 and 8:37 on the clock. Edwards straight up stole the ball from return man Gavis Dempz, who was ruled to have been down before the ball came out. The call wasn’t made to review it until Almont lined up for its first snap of the drive.

“I was kind of frustrated,” Edwards said about the delayed call. “I got up and was like, ‘I took the ball from him.’ "

That was Edwards’ third turnover of the game, and while Lansing Catholic wasn’t able to take the lead on Almont during that possession, it had successfully ripped the momentum from its hands. Lansing Catholic’s defense forced a three-and-out, and just 1:24 later, Gillespie threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Raphael that was initially ruled an incompletion, but overturned after video review.

“I floated the ball a little too much,” Gillespie said, “but I put it in the right place, and he just made a huge play.”

Both teams coughed up the ball before putting points on the board.

Almont converted on fourth-and-inches at its own 40 to keep its opening drive alive. But senior quarterback Josh Hellebuyck was intercepted on the next play by Zach Stone, who had a full head of steam after jumping the route and returned the pick 42 yards to the Almont 20.

Just another play later, Lansing Catholic quarterback Zach Gillespie threw off his back foot and was intercepted easily by Jack Paupert. Three plays after that, Gillespie stripped Paupert on a run up the middle, giving the ball right back to Lansing Catholic after Sam Edwards recovered at the 25.

Gillespie completed passes of 10 and 6 yards before three straight run plays by the senior quarterback got Lansing Catholic into the end zone for a 7-0 lead. Those were Gillespie’s only completions of the half.

“I don’t think I could have had a worse first half,” Gillespie said.

Almont pounded its way up the field in response, travelling 83 yards with 13 consecutive runs and culminating with a 9-yard score by Paupert. The touchdown not only tied things up at 7, but also established the two-pronged rushing attack of Paupert and Michael Lulgjur.

The passing game became Almont’s focus to begin the third quarter. Hellebuyck completed passes of 9, 13 and 22 yards, as Almont captured a 10-7 lead with a 31-yard field goal by Ryan Miller.

Gillespie was picked off again while throwing from his back foot under duress during the next possession, and Landon Kruse’s interception gave Almont the spark it needed to throw things into overdrive. Hellebuyck opened the ensuing Almont series with another 22-yard completion to Colby Schapman, and two plays later, Lulgjur put Almont up 17-7 on a 22-yard touchdown run.

Lansing Catholic answered with a field goal of its own on the following drive, sparked by a 46-yard completion from Gillespie to Alex Watters on the possession’s first play — and it wasn’t done. Edwards forced his second turnover of the game in an interception of Hellebuyck early in Almont’s next possession.

Gillespie said that the deep completion to Watters helped him find his groove during the second half.

“I was kind of rattled. That kind of gave us the momentum and reassured to myself that I know I can do this,” Gillespie said. “Alex got open, Griffin (Hotchki) got open, everyone just kind of got open for me.”

Gillespie loaded up on the first play of Lansing Catholic’s next possession, finding Hotchki for a completion 33 yards down the field. Gillespie then found Vince Salquist in the end zone on third-and-goal to tie things up at 17 with 8:45 left.

Stone came up with his second interception on the second play of Almont’s next possession. Gillespie iced the game with a 4-yard touchdown run.