DOWN TO THE WIRE: Miners Squeeze Past Braves
Click the thumbails to see photos and videos taken by Brad Landis, and click AUDIO buttons for post-game comments from Mitch Cartwright, Braves Coach Jeff Hansen, and Miners Coach Paul Jacobson. Also hear player spotlight interviews with Michael Brazeau and Cam Kelly, and hear radio calls of Ethan Jensen's sack and Nate Young touchdown run.
NEGAUNEE---They walked off the Miner Stadium field with their white Gladstone Braves uniforms no longer white. And the boys inside those uniforms walked off the field angry.
The uniforms were a mess thanks to the mud and grass stains from a Friday night under the lights. That's football at its best. But the Braves players and coaches also walked off the field feeling like they were robbed by factors out of their control. And rightly or wrongly, that can be the worst feeling in football.
The Negaunee Miners (6-1) clinched a state playoff spot with an entertaining, and tense, 31-30 win over the Braves, a result that put the Braves (3-4) on the edge of playoff extinction.
And when it was over, Gladstone Coach Jeff Hansen put the blame squarely on the backs of the officials.
Hansen complained bitterly about two controversial pass interference calls, a questionable blocking penalty that negated a 100-yard pick-six touchdown, and the fact that the home team was not whistled for a single penalty all night long.
"It felt like we were playing against a lot more than the Negaunee Miners tonight, I'll tell you that much," Hansen said. "It's not just what's called, it's when it's called. It's on every single game-changing play. I'm not gonna sit here and BS and say it was a well-reffed game. It wasn't. This is too important of a football game for the referees be that much of a presence."
Hansen was just getting started.
"We didn't travel this far in the season to completely throw our discipline out the window," Hansen said. "We know how to play football. That's what I'll say about the officiating. I really don't care how much flack I get for it. A poorly-reffed game is a poorly-reffed game. It definitely helped the outcome, for sure."
And Hansen wasn't done yet.
"I've been a high school football coach for 18 years," Hansen said. "I know a well-regulated, well-reffed game and I know a poorly-reffed. That was a poorly-reffed game, plain and simple. And it's frustrating because you can have a ref crew that has by far the least-invested in the outcome decide the outcome. That's essentially what happened tonight. The guys are angry. And I don't blame them.
It wasn't just key calls going against the Braves. however.
The Negaunee Miners played hard and made big plays when they needed to in the fourth quarter, putting on a 76-yard, 12-play drive in the fourth quarter to score the go-ahead touchdown. All 12 plays were on the ground, with the Miners offensive line opening holes and Nico Lukkarinen scoring the five-yard touchdown with 5:36 left to tie it at 30-30.
Then it was up to Phillip Nelson to kick the extra point. He badly missed one on the Miners' first touchdown, and Negaunee went for two on their next three TD's, but this time, Nelson split the uprights to make it a 31-30 Negaunee lead.
"The first one, you know, young kids, they lose focus sometimes," Negaunee Coach Paul Jacobson said. "We came through and talked to him again before the last one, said 'hey this is what you've got to do, keep your head down'. Fortunately, it went through."
The Braves had the chance to counter, and after Cole Potier got his team a first down with a 14-yard run, they faced 4th-and-4 from the 50-yard line.
Quarterback Nate Young threw a pass to Eli Berthaume in the middle of the field, and he went up and got it, but was hit hard and the ball popped free. After the game, Berthaume felt it was a helmet-to-helmet hit and should have been a tergeting penalty, but no flag was thrown.
The Miners got one first down and ran out the clock, escaping with the one-point win in yet another battle with the Braves.
"It was a classic battle," Jacobson said. "There'sbeen a lot of great games between Gladstone and Negaunee over the years. It's never a boring game. We're just fortunate to be on top of that one. We always tell the guys, you're going to have adversity, things aren't always going to go your way, and you have to respond. These guys knew coming down that they just had to suck it up. I'm proud of these guys the way they handled the adversity. Gladstone is a good football team."
The game started well for the Miners as Phillip Nelson took the opening kickoff to the house for a touchdown. The Braves responded, though, with a tying touchdown as quarterback Nate Young passed to Berthaume on back-to-back plays, the second being an 11-yard touchdown throw and catch.
Negaunee went for it on 4th-and-11 from the 41-yard line, but Berthaume made a nice play as the Miners tried for a pitch-and-hitch pass. Bethaume broke it up and recovered the fumble.
The ball went back to Negaunee, though, as Nelson intercepted a pass on a jump ball which one official initally ruled was a catch for the Braves. Negaunee cashed in with a 65-yard, 12 play drive (eleven plays on the ground), capped by a short Lukkarinen touchdown.
The Miners missed the two-point conversion, so it remained 12-6.
Gladstone answered thatr with a 40-yard pass to Berthaume that bounced off a pair of hands, and a helmet, before falling in Berthaume's arms. On the next play, Potier raced up field for a 37-yard touchdown to tie the game. Young passed to Elliot Vitito in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion, giving Gladstone a 14-12 lead.
Negaunee regained the lead less than a minute later as Easton Palomaki burst free for a 50-yard touchdown run. But they missed the two-point conversion again, so it was 18-14.
The offense continued as Potier broke loose for a 65-yard touchdown run, and then he got into the left side of the end zone on a determined two-point run, making it 22-18.
Once again, Negaunee had the response. After getting the ball on a short punt at midfield, the Miners used seven plays to get into the end zone again, converting two third down plays along the way. Lukkarinen scored his third touchdown, making it 24-22.
Negaunee missed the two-point conversion again, but led with 1:28 left in the half.
The Braves, after running a half-mimute off the clock, decided to throw up field, but Young's pass was intercepted. That gave Negaunee the ball at the Gladstone 41, and that's when tempers started to boil over for Hansen and the Braves.
Gladstone was called for two pass interference penalties, with the one on 4th-and-5 drawing the ire of Hansen. He raced onto the field to protest the call, and after more than a few words, he was given an unspoortsmanlike conduct penalty.
"I earned that penalty," Hansen said. "I'm proud of that penalty."
On the last play of the half, the Miners quarterback Gerald Johnson dropped back to throw. The Braves brought pressure and the pass was intercepted at the goal line by Mitch Cartwright. He started running back up field, and needed one block for a 100-yard pick-six. He got that block from big lineman Hunter Potier, who showed why colleges want him by somehow getting 70 yards up field to help Cartwright.
Cartwright went into the end zone, stumbling the final three yards.
One problem. Flag on the play. They called Potier, who appeared to be in front of the only Negaunee defender, for a block in the back. The Braves were infuriated by the call.
"That play wouldn't have even been possible without the pressure on the quarterback," Cartwright said. "And Hunter, I don't know what, but he was cookin'. I mean, I caught the ball and started running. I ran about 50, and I looked up and I was like, 'oh, there's 50 more!' I just kept running. I looked to my right and I saw Hunter just a full stride running."
"And I saw their one big kid in front of me so I ranust a little bit inside, and faked it, cut back, and Hunter got right up in front of me and hit the kid. And it was clean. Because I don't now how he can block in the back when he's coming at you."
The second half saw the defensess adjust. There was no scoring until the fourth quarter, when Young broke a tackle, stiffarmed a defender, and scampered 55 yards down the sideline for a touchdown with 9:47 left in the game. A pass to Berthaume made it 30-24.
But that's when Negaunee got tough, and made the plays they needed to make.
"Hats off to Negaunee," Hansen said. "They popped the option outside and made the big plays when the game was on the line. We have to focus on that going forward. How do we, with the game on the line, not give that play up. If we want to be a playoff team, we have to be able to make those plays down the stretch when we have the lead."