By Joe St. Henry
Review Sports Contributor
Avenging a late season loss to Clarkston by beating the Wolves in the first round of the state playoffs proved to be elusive last Friday. The Dragons could not overcome turnovers, penalties and their opponent’s big plays, falling 30-7 to the defending D1 state champions.
As in their first meeting two week earlier, Lake Orion’s offense moved the ball but mistakes haunted them at crucial moments of the game. The Dragons generated 261 yards of offense, including 165 on the ground, but committed three turnovers and 60 yards in penalties.
Lake Orion finished the season 5-5, winning five of their last seven regular season games to earn a trip to the postseason for only the second time in the past five years.
“It felt like the same rivalry game against Clarkston that we’ve played over and over,” said Head Coach John Blackstock. “We played well at times, but they made the plays when they needed to be made and they just don’t make mistakes.”
The Dragons started the game on offense and quickly moved into Wolves’ territory, but turned the ball over on an interception. Clarkston wasted little time jumping out in front, 7-0, when the Wolves connected on a 57-yard touchdown pass.
Lake Orion tied the game on their next possession, driving 60 yards in 14 plays, capped by junior quarterback Blaze Lauer’s nine-yard touchdown run. He led the Dragons in rushing for the night, with 61 yards on 10 carries.
The Wolves set themselves up with a short field after a 50-yard kickoff return and then regained the lead on a 23-yard touchdown run, to go up 14-7 after one quarter.
Clarkston struck again minutes later after a long punt return set them up on Lake Orion’s 30-yard line. Less than a minute later, a short touchdown run put them up 21-7.
Things got worse for the Dragons when they fumbled on their next series and the Wolves recovered on Lake Orion’s 21-yard line, with a chance to blow the game open. The Dragon defense stood tall, however, and stopped Clarkston’s drive at the one-yard line on fourth down.
“You can’t turn the ball over like that against a team like Clarkston,” Blackstock said. “Our running backs did a great job protecting the ball all season, so that fumble was surprising. Luckily, we made some big stops to give us some energy.”
The teams traded punts and then, with time running down in the half, the Dragons took advantage of two Wolves’ personal fouls and had a first down at the Clarkston one-yard line with a chance to cut the lead and gain valuable momentum going into half time.
But with less than 30 seconds left, an apparent touchdown run by junior Kobe Manzo was overturned by a side judge who said he was down before crossing the goal line. On fourth down, the Dragons were stopped for a loss.
“That really changed the game,” Blackstock said. “It’s really different going into the locker room down by seven, versus 14 points. We just told the team not to give the refs any more opportunities to make those calls. Next time open up bigger holes, so the running back can sprint into the end zone.”
Unfortunately, the Dragons struggled to sustain a drive in the second half. The defense kept the Wolves out of the end zone, but their kicker hit three field goals (44, 29 and 33 yards). When the final gun sounded, Clarkston had posted yet another win over Lake Orion.
Despite the early playoff exit, Blackstock said he was very proud of the team’s ability to bounce back after starting the season with two losses.
“The coaches were really happy how the team progressed after our start,” Blackstock said. “The kids really stuck up for each other, especially when one of the units was struggling.”
The head coach also highlighted the team’s work ethic. He noted the performance of Lake Orion’s senior-dominated offensive line, which he said really came together in the team’s third game, the team’s first win.
“Those guys get little glory, but they opened the holes for our run game,” Blackstock said. “Our younger guys coming up with have some big shoes to fill.”
Lake Orion’s rushing attack was led by Manzo, who finished the season with 550 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught passes for 207 yards and scored three receiving touchdowns. Senior Jack DeBrincat ran for 382 yards and three scores for the season. Junior Marlon Robinson also ran for three touchdowns.
Quarterback Lauer lead the team’s offense, passing for 945 yards and 13 touchdowns and running for another seven scores in ten games. Senior Matt Freeman and junior Mitch Howell led the Dragon receiving corps with four touchdown receptions each.
“We played a lot of juniors in skill positions,” Blackstock said. “Their improvement next year will be determined by how hard they work this off-season.”