By Joe St. Henry
Review Sports Contributor
Missed opportunities doomed Lake Orion’s football team in a 24-14 loss to Clarkston in their annual grudge match last Friday.
Both teams were playing to honor cancer survivors and victims, but after a pre-game ceremony the niceties were put aside and the battle began.
The Dragons failed to score the first four times they moved the ball deep inside Wolves territory. In addition to turning the ball over on downs multiple times, their frustrations included a lost fumble at the Clarkston one-yard line in the first quarter that could have tied the game.
Lake Orion’s defense, meanwhile, fell victim to big plays, which helped Clarkston build a 21-0 lead in the fourth quarter before the Dragons got on the scoreboard.
Clarkston bottled up Lake Orion’s running game for much of the night, limiting the Dragons to only 103 yards rushing on 39 carries. Lake Orion was able to pass the ball, with quarterback Blaze Lauer going 16-29 passing for 176 yards and a touchdown pass. He also ran for another score.
The loss dropped the Dragons’ record to 4-4 (3-3 OAA Red), with one game remaining on the regular season schedule and a playoff berth up in the air.
“We didn’t play well, which was really disappointing,” Head Coach John Blackstock said. “But you have to give Clarkston some credit for that.”
The Wolves started fast, shutting down Lake Orion on its first offensive series, forcing a short punt and then scoring on a 36-yard run to go up 7-0 halfway through the first quarter.
Clarkston seemingly gained even more momentum when Lauer was intercepted on the Dragons’ next possession and the ball was returned inside the Lake Orion 20-yard line.
On the very next play, however, a Lake Orion gang tackle resulted in a stripped football that Dragon Josh Wuensch returned to the Clarkston 11-yard line.
Unfortunately, Lake Orion could not take advantage of its break when the drive ended on an incomplete fourth down pass.
“In hindsight, maybe we should have kicked a field goal to cut the lead, but we were playing Clarkston and I thought we really needed to score a touchdown to keep up,” Blackstock said.
The Dragons also came up empty on their next offensive possession that started on the Clarkston 38-yard line. The team drove inside the one-yard line, but Lauer fumbled on a quarterback sneak that the Wolves recovered in the end zone.
Another long Lake Orion drive stalled with a fourth down, incomplete pass late in the second quarter.
Still, despite their mistakes, the Dragons were only down 7-0 at the break to the defending D1 state champs.
“At the half, for as poorly as we played, we still felt we were controlling the game, and in it,” Blackstock said.
The chances of a Dragon upset took a big hit early in the third quarter. On its third play from scrimmage, Clarkston scored on a 70-yard catch and run, featuring a number of missed tackles by Lake Orion. The Wolves led 14-0, less than two minutes into the second half.
“That was a back breaker,” Blackstock said. “We made some adjustments at half and thought we could stop them. That play really hurt.”
On that big play, Blackstock said there were a number of missed tackles, something that plagued the team all night. Clarkston stretched its lead to three scores late in the quarter on a 62-yard run.
“We were really disappointed we did not tackle better,” he said. “(After) Watching (the) film, (I saw that) they gained some 170 yards after the catch and that’s because we tackled poorly.
“Clarkston’s defense really tackled well and that was a big reason they won.”
The Dragons finally got on the scoreboard halfway through the final quarter, capping a 12-play drive with a seven-yard touchdown pass from Lauer to junior wide receiver Sam Staruch, which cut the Wolves’ lead to 21-7.
After a Clarkston 20-yard field goal, Lake Orion closed the scoring on a 11-yard touchdown run by Lauer.
“We knew Clarkston had a great defense, one of the best in the state,” Blackstock said. “We really thought we could move the ball on the ground, but struggled and that was difference.”
Lake Orion’s state playoff dreams rest on this Friday’s non-league game against Monroe, which competes in the Southeastern Conference. The Trojans lost to Saline last week, but have qualified for the playoffs with a 6-2 record.
Given the Dragons’ current playoff points, they are essentially assured a post-season spot with a win and 5-4 record. Blackstock said after watching film of Monroe’s last game, he knows it will be a tough, “backyard brawl.”
“They have big kids up front on both sides of the ball,” he said. “There’s going to be some hard-hitting from both teams.”
Lake Orion’s marching orders this week are clear. “The kids know what is on the line,” Blackstock said. “Win and we’re in. Lose and the season is over.”