Despite controlling the first half and holding a 21-7 lead at the half, the Bucs needed a pair of late defensive stands to hold off a furious comeback attempt by the visiting Panthers in a 21-14 final that likely clinched a first-round home playoff game at Buccaneer Stadium for the third-straight season.
Although the final playoff points and matchups will not be unveiled until Sunday evening, there’s a possibility that the two rivals could meet again. That scenario produced different reactions from both head coaches after the thrilling finish.
“I hope so,” said West Ottawa coach Rory Zegunis, whose squad is 6-3. “It’s what the guys want and it’s a great ball game every time we meet.”
Grand Haven coach Mike Farley had a much different outlook.
“Not at all,” he said with a grin. “West Ottawa’s a great football team and facing the possibility of beating them two times in a season would be a big challenge. It’s tough enough beating them once a year.”
The Bucs’ secondary rose to the occassion in crunch time to help Grand Haven avenge two painful losses to the Panthers last year — including a heartbreaking first-round playoff setback.
With Grand Haven holding a 21-14 lead, Bucs’ senior Matt Kroll intercepted a play-action pass by West Ottawa quarterback Trevor Van Tubbergen in the end zone with 4 minutes, 29 seconds remaining to halt the first Panthers’ threat to tie the contest late in the fourth.
“We were in zone coverage and I saw the tight end slip out and run to the back of the end zone,” said Kroll, who also led the Bucs offensively with four catches for 79 yards. “He threw it up and I just went up and got it.
“I wasn’t surprised they threw it,” he added. “It was third down and they needed a touchdown.”
After a Grand Haven 3-and-out on offense, the Bucs attempted a pooch punt with quarterback Scott Staal.
Zegunis said the Panthers were in punt block mode and the call paid off, as Staal had no chance to get off the kick. The Panthers got the block, then scooped up the loose ball and were pulled down at the Grand Haven 20 with 1:17 to play.
A downfall for both teams during the contest was penalties. Grand Haven was whistled for 10 infractions for 100 yards and the Panthers were pushed back a whopping 143 yards on 12 penalties. Three of the Panthers’ costliest penalties came on their final drive. They got down to the Bucs’ 3-yard-line before penalties forced them into a 3rd-and-goal from the 29 yard line with 20 seconds left.
Grand Haven’s secondary didn’t allow the big play, as Van Tubbergen threw three-straight incompletions to force a turnover on downs and clinch the Bucs’ eighth victory.
Farley said the closing stretch was too close for comfort.
“My heart dropped several times,” he said. “I think I aged about five years. But our defense rose to the occassion, especially after they blocked that punt.”
Grand Haven’s passing attack keyed its very strong first-half performance. Staal threw for 134 of his 179 yards in the opening half.
West Ottawa scored on its opening drive — an impressive 76-yard, 7 1/2-minute effort — but the Bucs responded with 21 unanswered points. Big pass plays to Danny Cotter and Kroll set up Devin Howard’s 1-yard touchdown run, tying the game with 55 seconds left in the first quarter.
Big yardage through the air set up another Bucs’ touchdown on their first drive of the second quarter, which was capped by an 8-yard misdirection touchdown run by Dakota Smith — his school-record tying 18th of the season.
Grand Haven relied on a little razzle-dazzle to close out the first half. The Bucs drove 69 yards with under 1:45 to play, and with a first down on the 11 yard line, Staal handed the ball off to Smith going right. The Bucs’ quarterback slipped out of the backfield to the left, and Smith lofted a perfect throw-back pass to a wide-open Staal, who trotted into the end zone for a 21-7 advantage.
West Ottawa’s defense upped its intensity in the second half, limiting the Bucs to just 75 yards.
“I’m not sure what happened to us,” Kroll said. “I think a lot of it had to do with (West Ottawa’s) moves up front. They beat us on the line of scrimmage.”
Both teams went scoreless in the third quarter, but the Panthers finally found pay dirt early in the fourth quarter. Van Tubbergen connected with receiver Danny Matrosic on a 17-yard post route to draw within seven.
But the Panthers couldn’t scratch and claw for the equalizer.
“We missed too many opportunities to put points on the board,” Zegunis said. “The turnovers on our part, I take responsibility for some of that.”
Zegunis said he regretted the pass call that resulted in Kroll’s interception.
Panthers’ workhorse running back Brandon Allen had a big game with 161 yards on 20 carries. Van Tubbergen completed 9-of-22 passes for 109 yards.
Smith led the Bucs’ ground attack with 78 yards. Defensively, sophomore Isaak Newhouse totaled a team-high 10.5 tackles.
Kroll said the Bucs’ return to the playoffs stands as validation for some doubters at the beginning of the season.
“A lot of people thought this was going to be a rebuilding year for us, but we knew we could do it,” he said. “Now it’s our goal to win districts and hopefully make it to the state finals.”