By Joe St. Henry
Review Sports Contributor
Dragon senior linebacker Joshua Wuensch intercepted a Trojan pass inside the five-yard line with 34 seconds to go to preserve Lake Orion’s exciting 31-24 victory over Monroe last Friday.
The win gave the Dragons a 5-4 record and propelled them into the state playoffs with the opportunity to avenge a late season loss against Clarkston this week.
Wuensch’s interception was the last of several big plays from Lake Orion’s defense on the night. The Dragon offense, meanwhile, was fueled by its signature rushing attack, which accounted for 199 yards and two touchdowns. Lake Orion outscored Monroe 21-7 in the second half.
“I’m really proud of how the team handled the long road trip and game,” said Head Coach John Blackstock. “They showed a lot of maturity and focus. During the game’s ups and downs, they stuck together, did not panic and made plays when they needed to be made.”
After falling behind 10-0 in the second quarter, the Dragons were sparked by a 90-yard kickoff return by junior Sanai Pillot. “That was huge,” Blackstock said. “It really ignited our team and woke us up.”
Lake Orion then tied the game at ten a piece on junior Connor Ross’ 40-yard field goal with 27 seconds left in the half. The Dragons’ momentum quickly disappeared, though, when the Trojans took the ensuing short kickoff 80 yards to the end zone.
Lake Orion’s offense ran only 12 plays during the first two quarters and Monroe dominated the time of possession, but the Trojans were only leading by seven, 17-10, at the break.
“The kickoff return (at the end of the half) was certainly frustrating,” Blackstock said. “But the kids stayed even-keeled and didn’t flinch.”
On their second possession of the third quarter, the Dragons capped a 70-yard drive with junior Kobe Manzo’s five-yard touchdown run.
“After half time, we were much more successful on first down, which kept us out of third-and-long situations,” Blackstock said. “That was a key to the game.”
Lake Orion’s defense also stepped up, with key stops on third and fourth downs.
“In the first half we defended well, but did not tackle well,” Blackstock said. “We tightened it up in the second half and made some big plays.”
The Dragons finally grabbed their first lead in the game, 24-17, at the 9:57 mark of the fourth quarter, driving 59 yards in six plays, capped by junior Marlon Robinson’s six-yard touchdown run.
Unfortunately, the lead was short-lived. On the Trojans’ second play of their next possession, they scored on a 69-yard touchdown pass to tie the game with nine minutes left.
In a game full of momentum shifts, however, the Dragons struck on the ensuing kickoff, which junior Isaac Kinne returned 40 yards into Monroe territory. A personal foul added 15 yards more, giving Lake Orion the ball on their opponent’s 15-yard line.
It then took the Dragons only three plays to score on an 11-yard touchdown pass from junior Blaze Lauer to senior Matt Freeman, who made a highlight reel catch to get one foot in bounds and help Lake Orion regain a 7-point advantage.
After trading possessions, Monroe had one last chance to mount a drive to tie the game with 2:51 left in in the contest. Lake Orion’s trip to the playoffs hinged on its defense.
Monroe made it interesting. The Trojans moved 70 yards to Lake Orion’s ten-yard line, including a fourth and ten conversion on a 32-yard pass play.
But it was the Dragons who came up with the last big play of the night with the goal-line interception. A few seconds later, they ran off the field knowing they would be playing at least one more week.
Blackstock said Lake Orion deserved to make the playoffs, given its schedule. He noted the four teams that they lost to this season have a combined 30-6 record.
His team is playing well now and Blackstock said he likes the Dragons’ chances against the Wolves. He knows Lake Orion must take advantage of scoring opportunities inside Clarkston’s red zone (20-yard line) – something they struggled with during their first meeting.
“You don’t get too many second chances and its always great to play Clarkston,” he said. “I like our mindset going into the game. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Lake Orion plays at 7 p.m. on Friday at Clarkston in the first round of the playoffs.