October 28, 2016
Prayers answered: Houghton Lake gets
second shot at Roscommon in playoffs
By KEITH GAVE
With the final seconds ticking off the game clock and his team needing a miracle touchdown, quarterback Jackson Blanchard was scrambling for his life. He faded left, did a 180 and darted right to evade oncoming tacklers. He ducked under one of them and went to his left again before heaving the ball to the deepest, darkest part of the end zone.
“Hail Mary. . .” the ball came down under those shimmering Friday night lights and into a crowd that fell to the ground into a pile. “Full of grace. . .” After a few seconds that felt like an eternity to every serious football fan in Roscommon County, a man in a black-and-white striped shirt finally raised his arms. Two players had both claimed the ball, but the officials determined that the simultaneous catch belonged to Houghton Lake junior receiver Seth Brandel.
Touchdown! The clock had run out of time long before, and now the scoreboard read Roscommon 36, Houghton Lake 34. It came down to the extra points-after play that always follows a touchdown – and everyone on both sides of that high school gridiron knew what was coming next.
Bobcats senior running back Gavin Masse had been virtually unstoppable that night. Blanchard handed him the ball 28 times that game and he amazed 208 yards and scored three touchdowns. Now Masse needed just three more yards to tie the game that reminded all who were fortunate to be there that night how rivalries like this represent the best of high school football.
But with the crowd on both sides screaming, exhorting, imploring, pleading with their teams to make that final play, Blanchard’s pitch to Masse rolling to his right was off the mark. The ball wound up on the ground, and by the time Masse could pick it up and start running toward a goal line that was becoming more distant by the second, it was hopeless. He was buried under an avalanche of blue and yellow shirts.
Game over. On the home side of the field, delirious cheering. On the visitors’ side, a deafening silence. My lasting impression of that game: a half-dozen Houghton Lake players lying face down on the field, devastated, crushed, exhausted.
One of the casualties of spending a lifetime covering sports is that you tend to lose your identity as a fan. There’s no cheering in the press box. Indeed, I had no particularly allegiance that night, no dog in that fight. My wife, Jo Ann, and I just really enjoy high school football, and we go to games as often as we can.
So my applause that night was for the performance both teams gave us in a truly memorable game. But my gut instinct was to go out onto that field and give those heartbroken kids a hug.
On Friday night, on the same field they left their tears, those boys will get another chance. Roscommon and Houghton Lake meet in a sequel, thanks to the Michigan High School Athletic Association for adding the 5-4 Bobcats to the field of playoff teams. The Bucks are 8-1 and ranked eighth in their division in statewide polls by The Associated Press.
But in this game we can throw records and rankings out the window – and just sit back and enjoy the performances.
Roscommon, too, has some fearsome offensive firepower. In that see-saw battle on Sept. 23, Bucks senior running back Trey Lewandowski carried 45 times for 279 yards and four touchdowns and senior quarterback Jacob Sayad connected on a couple of clutch passes to keep drives alive.
There was a lot of talent on the field that night, and a lot of passion. But what I admired most was how two proud coaches handled that epic moment.
“It’s what you get into coaching for, a unique opportunity – both quality teams, and the kids represent themselves how you hoped they would,” Bobcats coach Joe Holloway told The Houghton Lake Resorter. “Character reveals itself under scrutiny, and that’s what this rivalry is about. . .”
“You couldn’t have asked for a better rivalry game, great high school football,” Roscommon coach Steve Clements said. “We had two of the best backs in Northern Michigan on the field in this game, and that’s what fans came to see.”
We’ll be there again, Jo Ann and I, drawn to those enduring Friday night lights of high school playoff football, when these two teams meet again. For my money, and I’ve seen a lot at the highest levels of professional and college athletics, this is as good as it sports. This is going to be big.