The Buccaneers were 64 yards away from a go-ahead touchdown with a young, inexperienced offense that hadn’t put together a scoring drive since early in the fourth quarter.
But with their backs to the wall, that group of youngsters stood tall. Quarterback Michael Penland calmly led his team down the field, converting on a pair of key third-down passes, including a 4-yarder to Jake Lovett for the winning score with 1:33 to play in a 17-14 Grand Haven win.
The Buccaneers weren’t out of the woods yet; Central quarterback T.J. Schepperly expertly guided his team down to the Bucs’ 29-yard line in the closing seconds, giving kicker Jake Gorter a chance to tie the game. Gorter had showed off his big leg earlier in the game with several booming kickoffs, and his effort from 46 yards probably had enough distance, but the kick hooked left and never had a chance.
Lovett liked what he saw from Penland in the team’s final drive.
“I’ve got complete confidence in Mike Penland, and when the pressure was on, he stepped up,” said Lovett, a senior who didn’t catch a single pass last year as a junior. “It’s incredible to get this win. Most of us have been playing since we were 7 years old, and you hear about this kind of thing all the time. It’s great to be a part of it.”
Traverse City Central coach Tom Passinault said missed opportunities and way too many penalties cost his team the victory.
“The first game always has its share of mistakes on both sides,” said Passinault, whose team committed nine penalties for 89 yards.
“We had our opportunities. We had so many chances to score, but we just had too many penalties.”
The Trojans started drives from its own 40 or better four times during the second half, including one drive that started at Grand Haven’s 31 yard line. The Trojans only scored on one of those possessions — a 31-yard drive that ended on Nate Pupel’s 1-yard touchdown plunge with 5:34 to play in the game. Gorter’s kick made it 14-10 TC Central.
Central’s defense then stood tall, forcing a three-and-out. The Bucs chose to punt with around 5 minutes to play, but Central gave the ball right back, and a poor snap led to a shanked punt that gave Grand Haven the ball on its own 36-yard line.
Penland, who completed 14-of-31 passes for 184 yards and an interception, came up big on a third-and-6 play when he hit Jeff Olson for a 17-yard gain. A roughing the passer penalty on the same play gave the Bucs great field position at the TC Central 25, and Grand Haven took advantage a few plays later for the winning score.
“We didn’t get down,” Farley said. “We showed a lot of resolve. We fought back and won the football game.
“Going in, we knew we were young and inexperienced. These kids had never had an opportunity to be in a game like this. We knew Traverse City Central was going to be a solid team, and we know this game was going to go a full four quarters.”
Grand Haven looked like it might run away with the game early on. The Bucs’ defense forced three consecutive three-and-outs by the Trojans’ offense.
Meanwhile Grand Haven’s offense started off on fire. The Bucs’ first drive covered 47 yards in just 1:55 and was capped off by a beautiful pass from Penland to a leaping Newhouse, who got behind the Trojans’ defense and went way up to pull down the pass in the end zone.
Grand Haven reached the end zone on its next possession, but a penalty wiped out that score. The Bucs settled for a 35-yard field goal by Ryan Maguire to take a 10-0 lead.
Central responded in the second quarter when Schepperly broke free for a 12-yard touchdown run to make it 10-7. The Trojans nearly scored again before halftime, but a big play by Newhouse ended the threat.
The Trojans drove deep into Buccaneers’ territory, and Schepperly threw up a pass for Drew Reamer in the end zone. The Trojans’ big tight end had both hands on the ball, but Newhouse went up and wrestled it away for an interception and a touchback.
“We were in a coverage where I take the tight end,” Newhouse said. “I read pass, the tight end rolled out and we both went up for it. Somehow I came down with it.”
Neither team had much success running the football thanks to a pair of physical, stingy defensive efforts.
Grand Haven managed just 87 yards on 26 carries, while Central gained 83 yards on 31 carries.
Schepperly hit 12-of-25 passes for 120 yards and an interception. His favorite target was Reamer, who grabbed six catches for 68 yards.
Jeff Olson, a senior wide receiver, finished with seven catches for 103 yards for Grand Haven.
Cody Jonas, who led Grand Haven in rushing with 48 yards, also had a fantastic game punting the football. He had to kick out of his own end zone several times in the second half, including one kick where he picked up a bouncing snap off the turf and got off a nice punt.
Pupel was a beast on defense for the Trojans, making nine stops. Matt Mulcahy had 10 tackles for the Bucs, while Newhouse had eight, Quinton Morley seven and Abe Westerman six.
After the victory, the Buccaneers were presented with a traveling trophy featuring a model of a Coast Guard helicopter.
Next week, they’ll play for another trophy as the Buccaneers travel north to face Traverse City West on Thursday.