Oak Park edges Livonia Churchill, continues surprising postseason run

Kam Goodwill
Special to The Detroit News
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Oak Park continues its unprecedented run through the MHSAA football playoffs, defeating Livonia Churchill 30-23 on Saturday in a back-and-forth game filled with momentum swings, miscues, and big plays from both teams.

The game was exciting throughout, and Oak Park didn’t look like a team with a 3-6 record.

Oak Park coach Greg Carter: “It’s so fun, it’s quite an experience, I think this is the first time Oak Park has won a regional football game, so we’re extremely happy. We know we got work to do, we got to get a lot better quick.”

Coach Greg Carter couldn’t be enjoying the moment more.

“It’s so fun, it’s quite an experience, I think this is the first time Oak Park has won a regional football game, so we’re extremely happy. We know we got work to do, we got to get a lot better quick,” Carter said.

Oak Park scored first with a long drive that lasted almost nine minutes, converting a fourth and 20 into a 21-yard touchdown for quarterback James Burnley, finding Ky’Shaun Jackson in the corner of the end zone. The extra point was blocked.

Burnley himself had a great game, completing passes on the run and using his legs on QB runs to gain yardage, including a 6-yard touchdown run to put the score at 12-7.

But, Churchill had a trick up its sleeve to put themselves back in the game. On first down, two tosses led the ball to receiver Jordan Garcia, who threw the ball back to Brooks in a Philly Special-like play for a 32-yard gain. 

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Churchill coach Bill DeFillippo commented said, “It’s good for maybe once or twice a year, and sometimes it’s hard for your opponents if they’re not in (the same) league … you can’t run it too much during the year.”

Churchill then converted a fourth down of its own, also leading to a touchdown as Brooks found receiver Jimmy Targosz for a spectacular contested catch in the end zone, and with a two-point conversion found itself in the lead, 15-12, as halftime hit.

“I’m not one of those guys who waits until the end of the fourth quarter … we just went for two to get up on the scoreboard by three, so if they did end up kicking a field goal, we wouldn’t end up behind,” DeFillippo said.

Maybe it was the cold temperatures or the almost two-month layoff between games, but there were plenty of mistakes from both teams, including fumbles and bad snaps, as one bad snap from Oak Park caused a safety that gave Churchill two more points.

“We didn’t play very good today, but it’s all about gaining experience and playing hard,” Carter said. "The only way you can do this is to go out there and play hard, and give everything that you have, and I think our kids did that.”

They may not have played well, but they bounced back from mistakes well enough, as Bwana Miller scored on a 29-yard touchdown run in their next drive to give Oak Park a three-point lead.

The teams traded punts, and then turnovers. Churchill fumbled a fair catch, giving Oak Park possession in Chargers territory before Burnley fumbled the snap just two plays later, which was recovered by Dennis White for Churchill.

On the ensuing drive, Brooks found Targosz again, this time wide open for a big 42-yard reception on 3rd and 6, which then led to a 5-yard touchdown run by Boston Clegg Jr.  The extra point was missed, leaving the lead at 23-20.

In the fourth, Oak Park ran the ball 15 times, holding possession of the ball for almost eight minutes. Faced with a fourth down on Churchill’s 7-yard line, the Knights decided to go for it instead of kicking the field goal, but Churchill was able to shut it down.

Carter said of the decision to pound the run during that drive, “You gotta be able to run the football in the tournament … So we’ll get better. We’ll get back in the groove.”

Oak Park still had all three timeouts, and thanks to a penalty that put the Chargers deeper in their own territory, forced a safety when Brooks intentionally walked into the back of the end zone so Churchill could kill time and create a better opportunity to punt from its own 20 rather than near its own goal.

On second and 15 with under a minute left, Burnley escaped the pressure, ran to his left and found Amari Harris, who made a diving catch in the end zone for the touchdown. “I rolled out, and then I saw (Harris), that I work out with every day. … So I’m like, ‘I know he’s gonna catch this,’ so I threw it," Burnley said.

Burnley then used his legs to scramble and make a few Churchill defenders miss for the two-point conversion.

The game was sealed for Oak Park when Charles Gillespie intercepted the ball and immediately went down, stunning the Livonia Churchill crowd who couldn’t believe it was seeing the end of its team’s season.

“It was two good teams playing, and then there was the score at the end of the game, and we ran out of time,” DeFillippo said.

For the fourth straight game, Oak Park celebrated a win on another team’s field, this time with a trophy presentation at the end, declaring it regional champion.

Carter made light of the dramatic victory, saying, “We gotta make sure these games aren’t this close, it’s not good for an old coach.”

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