The Grand Haven football team put their hearts on display Friday, as they took on Caledonia in their final home game of the season, falling in their closest contest of the year, 21-14.
After trading touchdowns in the first quarter, neither team could find the end zone, or goalposts, through the second or third quarters. The Fighting Scots converted two rushing touchdowns to open up the fourth quarter to put the pressure on the Grand Haven offense.
With 1:49 left in the game, the Bucs fielded a mercifully short punt at the 50-yard line, giving the Homecoming crowd something to cheer about. Senior quarterback Adam Nelson got to work, throwing three straight completions to Tristan Winkleman, Kellum Bridgeforth and Caden Striegle to work Grand Haven toward the endzone.
Nelson finished off the drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Malic Love. Jake Thayer’s extra point brought the Bucs within seven with 59 seconds to play, setting up an onside kick attempt.
The Grand Haven special teams unit couldn’t pull off the miracle, as the kick fell neatly into the arms of a Scotsman. Caledonia assumed victory formation to run out the remaining time, and the Bucs’ hopes of Homecoming heroics.
“We played hard tonight, we probably played our best game of the year,” Grand Haven head coach Joe Nelson said. “We made some uncharacteristic mistakes in penalties and turnovers that cost us. But, the kids played hard and Caledonia had a nice game. We had real trouble stopping that quarterback.”
From the outset, Grand Haven came to play. On offense, they were able to find open space on the ground and in the air, and did so quickly.
After receiving the opening kickoff, Love, Nelson and Charlie Young hit the ground game, as each earned positive yardage on their first carry of the game. The success opened up the backfield and a weak Caledonia secondary, setting up a 55-yard touchdown pass from Nelson to Winkleman.
Once the offense did their job, Grand Haven’s defense returned the favor. The Scots converted one first down before being forced off the field and kept off the scoreboard.
“We felt like we had these guys,” Nelson said of the early success. “We felt like we could control them and we owned them. The kids were fired up and feeling confident, that is what we wanted to see. Good things were happening. Then, we made a few mistakes.”
A Grand Haven punt sent the ball back to Caledonia. This time, they capitalized, piecing together a ground-and-pound drive for a score, finished off by a 4-yard carry. The extra point tied the game at seven, kicking off two full quarters of attrition.
Malic Love broke off a highlight-reel 40-yard run on Grand Haven’s final drive of the opening quarter to put them in scoring position. Caledonia’s encroachment on the following play moved the Bucs to second-and-goal on the 7-yard line as the first quarter expired.
Two failed tries at the endzone brought Thayer out to try a chip shot for the lead. The short kick clanged off the uprights, leaving the game tied at seven.
Caledonia’s ensuing three-and-out gave the Bucs another chance to drive, but an untimely pick by Nelson sent the ball right back. Luckily, another Caledonia punt set Grand Haven up with a short field and short time.
Another promising drive fell short as runs by Nelson and Love brought Grand Haven back into the red zone, where the offense short-circuited at the seven-yard line, continuing a season-long theme of scoring difficulties.
Caledonia then threatened to take a halftime lead with a drive inside the Grand Haven 10-yard line. On first-and-goal from the 6-yard line, the Scots could not convert; throwing three incomplete passes into the end zone and missing their fourth-down field goal attempt to bring the tie into halftime.
The crushing home defense continued in the second half, as Caledonia wasted their differed possession with a three-and-out, before a booming punt pinned the Bucs within their own five.
Grand Haven’s run game bailed them out once again, working out to the 16-yard line for a first down. A penalty pushed them back to the 11, setting up what could have been the play of the game.
Nelson rolled to his left looking for an open man, before taking off around the edge. A few broken tackles and an impressive burst of speed set him off to the races for an 89-yard touchdown run. The score was called back on a personal foul, 30-yards behind the play.
“That part was disappointing, that was a big-time mistake,” Nelson said. “I’m sure it was emotion of the game playing into it, these kids wanted it pretty bad, but that was disappointing.”
Despite their miscues, the game continued breaking the Bucs’ way, as Caledonia fumbled away a scoring chance on the Grand Haven two-yard line.
Love took advantage, breaking off a 40-yard run up the middle of the field down to the Caledonia 13-yard line, where red zone struggles would continue. After failing to find the end zone, another missed field goal attempt preserved the 7-7 tie.
The third quarter would end with Nelson’s second interception of the day, setting up Caledonia’s two fourth-quarter touchdowns and Grand Haven’s near comeback.
Nelson finished his final game at Gene Rothi Stadium 7-for-16 passing for 132 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, along with 17 rushing yards. Emotions were high following the game, with heartbreak breeding determination for the final stretch of the season.
“Senior year, didn’t win here, couldn’t give my dad a win, we are still fighting though, three games left, it is not over,” he said. “We played great, stupid mistakes got us, but we have to take what we got. Maybe the emotion got to us, but we played together, family. We are all in this together with three games left. It is unfortunate we couldn’t get it done here, but we have three games left to fight.”
Fellow senior Love led out of the backfield with 87 yards on 14 carries, ahead of Charlie Young with 39 yards on nine carries.
“I love that kid and how hard he plays,” Nelson said. “He is an example everyone needs to follow and watch.”
Winkleman led in receiving with his only reception for a 55-yard touchdown. Bridgeforth followed with 31 yards on two catches, while Love scored the Bucs other receiving touchdown to go with 27 yards. Caden Striegle followed with 11 yards on one catch, while Collin Takas hauled in one reception for eight yards.
The Bucs will look for one final win with three games left in the season against East Kentwood, Hudsonville and Grand Rapids Union.