With a critical defensive stand at midfield and a crucial fourth-down conversion by one of the state’s premier players in the late stages, Walled Lake Western halted Lowell’s furious second-half comeback to secure a 37-34 victory in the Division 2 semifinals Saturday.
The Warriors were on their heels throughout the second half, surrendering 20 unanswered points and watching their once-mighty 37-14 lead diminish little by little. Western bent, but never broke, in the end, however, to advance to its first state title game in in 17 years.
“It was such a relief. We were so emotionally drained,” Warriors coach Mike Zdebski said. “My biggest concern was how long that 24 minutes would take in the second half and it felt like it took six hours.”
With its lead recently slashed to just three points, Western’s defense finally managed to stop Lowell at midfield to force a turnover on downs with 3:20 to play.
A huge open field tackle by junior Zak Kempster dropped a Lowell receiver for a loss on third down and a fourth-down pass fell incomplete over the middle.
Needing to burn off the remaining clock and pick up a first down, the Warriors’ offense put the ball directly into the hands of senior Cody White, who took the direct snap out of the wildcat formation and raced 11 yards to his right on fourth-and-8. The first down enabled Western to take a knee to end the game.
“It was just an outside run and I knew I had to get the first down. I wasn’t going to let anybody stop me,” White said. “I did it for my teammates and for our city to win this semifinal game.”
Western (12-1) led 31-14 at halftime and tacked on six more points very early in the third quarter when a deep pass hit wideout Kam Ford for a 40-yard strike.
That score would mark the Warriors’ final points of the game, however, as Lowell scrapped its way back into the contest with three second-half touchdowns, each by quarterback David Kruse.
“That was the biggest thing we were talking about at halftime – to be careful of any overconfidence because of who we’re playing,” Zdebski said.
Lowell defeated Western in the 2011 and 2015 Division 2 semifinals, adding an element of payback to Saturday’s outcome.
“The kids overplayed a lot of things that were out of our control,” Zdebski said. “I think our kids played great. They played hard. I felt like we were playing on the west side of the state, right in Lowell’s back yard.”
Western scored on its first possession when Tracy scrambled for a 7-yard touchdown run. Following a Justin Thomas interception, the Warriors doubled their lead on a touchdown run by Ford.
The Red Arrows (12-1) got on the board to make it 14-7, but Western responded immediately when White took a direct snap and escaped several would-be tacklers in the backfield before breaking free and outracing everyone for a 61-yard run.
“He’s a game-breaker and Michigan State’s getting a really good kid there with him,” Zdebski said of White. “He has a knack for making those plays at critical points and times of the game.”
Aiden Jennings nailed a 23-yard field goal and White added one most touchdown run before halftime to give Western a big advantage at the break.
Seeking the program’s first state title since 1999, the Warriors will play at 1 p.m. on Friday at Ford Field against defending Division 2 champion Detroit Martin Luther King.
“It’s the first time in a long time. We’ve been knocking on the door,” Zdebski said. “It’s a big relief to get back.”