'On top of the world': New Lothrop best in Division 7 football again
Detroit — New Lothrop's football program is back on top in Division 7 after surviving Traverse City St. Francis, 42-35, in the title game at Ford Field on Saturday morning.
A 35-7 lead in the second quarter for New Lothrop (11-0) came very close to evaporating in the second half as St. Francis (9-3) scored four second-half touchdowns to draw within one score twice. New Lothrop recovered an onside kick attempt from St. Francis and then used up all four downs to finally see the clock at triple-zeros.
BOX SCORE: New Lothrop 42, Traverse City St. Francis 35
"It was a tale of two halves," New Lothrop coach Clint Galvas said. "We won the first half, and they (St. Francis) definitely won the second half. Lucky for us, we were able to extend enough lead in the first half to hold on. There was no quit in St. Francis, but I'm proud of our guys."
The win caps an undefeated season for New Lothrop and its third state championship, the most recent having come two seasons ago in 2018.
Galvas can now claim two state titles and has put together an impressive stretch since taking over New Lothrop in 2009. His teams have finished their seasons undefeated or with one loss 10 out of 12 times, never having a losing season.
As a program, New Lothrop is enjoying quite the run as well. It's made the playoffs 21 straight years, and its last losing season was in 1998.
New Lothrop averaged nearly 40 points per game in the four games leading up to the championship and then flexed its offensive muscle even more in the first half at Ford Field. Senior Julius Garza was a big part of that. The offensive weapon got loose several times, scoring through the air, on the ground and on special teams. He had four catches for 139 yards and a touchdown, a 6.5-yard rushing average on four carries with two scores, plus a kickoff return touchdown.
"I feel like I'm on top of the world right now," Garza said. "All the work we put in and everything we do, it means the world. We had to fight and overcome. It was an emotional swing. You've just got to keep your head up."
"Julius Garza having a heck of a day is not a surprise at all," Galvas said. "He was a two-way starter two years ago on that title team. The kid's always been a good player. We were able to get him in a lot of one-on-one matchups, and he's going to win those nine out of 10 times."
Senior quarterback Cam Orr seemed comfortable at the controls of New Lothrop's offense in the first half, picking apart the St. Francis defense and hitting his receivers with room to run. He finished 11-for-15 passing for 222 yards and one score, plus a 7.2-yard average on 17 carries with another touchdown.
"It was the craziest game," Orr said. "We punched them in the mouth, but they weren't going to back down. We knew we wouldn't be able to just blow by them. We just had to stick to our game plan. They (St. Francis) were trying to key on me (in the first half), and that left Julius Garza wide open, and he did his thing. In the second half they took care of Julius (Garza), did a great job on defense."
Orr, also a defensive lineman, was only a backup when New Lothrop took the 2018 title but has improved significantly since then and is committed to play football at Ferris State.
"This means everything for the community," Orr said. "They're watching on TV and it means everything for us to bring that trophy home.
"Through all the shutdowns everyone would still come to practice and put in work," New Lothrop running back and cornerback Will Muron said. "No one took a day off, and it ended up paying off, so it feels amazing."
Muron, a senior, finished with five carries for 32 yards and a touchdown, but he was on the sidelines with an ankle injury for a portion of the second half, aiding in St. Francis' comeback attempt.
"It was such a mix of emotions," Muron said. "There's crying, there's yelling, jumping around, but it was definitely worth it for me. It took mental strength. When you swing big and crank one deep it's easy to stay on top, but we did a great job when they punched us in the mouth, didn't hang our heads."
St. Francis was led by senior running back Aidan Schmuckal, who had 17 carries for 102 yards and two scores.
"We like to pride ourselves on never giving up," Schmuckal said. "We've been a team that's been known to battle back and never give up, so going into the second half I knew we'd fight until the bitter end."
"He's (Schmuckal) amazing," Muron said. "I would have given him the ball, too, and it was working, just not enough."
Because of New Lothrop's chunk plays and quick scoring drives combined with St. Francis' grind-it-out approach, the game became a statistical oddity. St. Francis had five more first downs than New Lothrop, ran 30 more plays and possessed the ball for 14 more minutes but still came up seven points short.
New Lothrop used one of its quick drives to get the scoring started. It needed only two plays on its first drive to go 59 yards and take a 6-0 lead. Muron ran to the right, picked up a block, broke a tackle and stumbled into the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown.
St. Francis answered with a 14-play, 67-yard drive that took up 7:40 and was capped with a three-yard touchdown run from junior running back Gabe Olivier. An extra point made it 7-6 for St. Francis.
On the ensuing kickoff, Garza caught the ball on the right side of the field, started toward the middle and then cut back right, taking it all the way for an 83-yard special teams' score. Garza then caught a pass for a two-point conversion to make it 14-7 for New Lothrop. When Garza came off the field, he was seen vomiting on the sideline, but he doesn't think it was because of exertion or nerves.
"We had some barbecue at the hotel last night, and I ate some fish, probably shouldn't have ate as much as I did, and my stomach was a little upset. After I threw up a little, I felt better," Garza said.
He didn't show any ill effects and in the second quarter made St. Francis pay again, this time snagging a ball for a 65-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Orr to seemingly put New Lothrop in control, 20-7.
A couple of drives later Garza plunged into the end zone for a 3-yard rushing score. A two-point conversion made it 28-7 for New Lothrop.
Later in the second quarter, Orr got in on the action with an 11-yard rushing touchdown, diving into the end zone and stretching New Lothrop's lead to 28, 35-7.
Schmuckal found pay dirt for St. Francis in the third quarter and started the comeback attempt, absorbing a lot of contact for a 2-yard TD run to draw St Francis to within three scores, 35-15.
In the fourth quarter, St. Francis capped a 9:19, 66-yard drive with a 1-yard quarterback sneak by junior Charlie Peterson, making it a two-score game, 35-22, with 9:08 left.
On New Lothrop's ensuing drive, it had a punt attempt blocked by junior Jimmy Muzljakovich which set up an easy, 2-yard rushing touchdown from Schmuckal, drawing St. Francis to within a score, 35-28 with 6:43 left, and making New Lothrop's 125 allotted fans quite nervous.
It seemed like Garza then saved the day for New Lothrop, catching several balls and capping the ensuing drive with a nine-yard touchdown run to make it 42-28 with fewer than three minutes left.
"That was a huge drive at the end of the fourth quarter," Galvas said. "It ended up being the deciding touchdown, one heck of a drive."
St. Francis wasn't done, though. It returned the kickoff deep into New Lothrop territory, and then Peterson hit junior tight end Josh Groves, who barely kept his feet in bounds, for a seven-yard touchdown to make it 42-35 for New Lothrop.
New Lothrop recovered the onside kick attempt but had to take it all the way to fourth down before time expired.
The championship appearance was St. Francis' 10th but first since 2009. It started the season slowly at 1-2 but then ripped off eight-straight wins before running into New Lothrop.
St. Francis' coach, Josh Sellers, had a very successful first tenure with St. Francis from 2003-07, winning two state championships after taking over from his Hall of Fame father, Larry.
After an eight-year hiatus, during which he was coaching high school football in Tennessee, Sellers came back to St. Francis and has seen four regional titles since, but the 2020 season was the best of his second tenure.
"This was tough to take, but I couldn't be more proud of these young men," Sellers said. "They busted their rear-ends and gave us a chance. We won the second half with great effort, great belief in one another but just fell a little short today."
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer