The wait is finally over for Walled Lake Northern: The Knights clinched their first state playoff berth in their 10-year history thanks to their sixth straight win in a 55-52 victory over previously undefeated Hartland on Friday, Oct. 12 in an instant classic.
Northern (6-2) also clinched the Kensington Lakes Activities Association (KLAA) Lakes Conference championship on the road in the matchup pitting the champions of the KLAA North (Knights) and West (Eagles), and what resulted was equivalent to a classic slugfest reminiscent of the “Rocky” movies.
When the game was all said and done, over 1,000 total yards of offense had been gained by the teams, with Northern accounting for 607 compared to 507 for Hartland (7-1).
“I don’t know if I can take anymore of those types of games,” said Northern Head Coach Brett Moore. “I knew it would be a tight, close game. It was special, it was a great feeling.”
The Knights had a 28-21 lead at halftime before Hartland’s Alec Bain kicked a 31-yard field goal to start the third quarter.
Northern responded when Collin O’Donnell pitched the ball to Matt Kosmalski for a 3-yard touchdown on a play that was set up on a roughing the kicker penalty on Hartland when Andrew Fee kicked a field goal, giving the Knights a first down instead.
On Hartland’s next drive, quarterback Stephen Milarch tried to throw a pass just before he was tackled, but the pass was deflected by the Knights and then intercepted by Mike Peer, who returned the pick 70 yards for a touchdown.
Milarch would redeem himself as he threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Bryan Ridley on the following drive.
The Knights appeared to have the game in hand early in the fourth quarter with a 48-30 lead after Kosmalski scored on a 28-yard touchdown run, followed by Northern recovering a Hartland fumble on the ensuing kickoff with just over 11 minutes remaining.
However, on the first play of the following drive, Kosmalski fumbled near the sideline and Hartland recovered at its own 26-yard line and had new life.
Four plays later, Milarch threw a 48-yard touchdown to Austin Pierce and a two-point conversion pass to Brandon Gigliotti to cut the Knights’ lead to 10.
Then on its next drive, Hartland’s Trevor Sudbay punched the ball into the end zone on a 1-yard run to cut the Eagles’ deficit to 3 and send their fans into a frenzy.
With his team on the ropes, O’Donnell remained cool under pressure and answered with a 51-yard touchdown pass to an open Matt Finn, and the Knights pushed their lead back up to 10.
“We’ve done it all year. We were once 0-2, but this team is resilient,” Moore said.
However, the advantage would be short-lived, as Milarch threw a 52-yard touchdown strike to Austin Pierce on the first play of Hartland’s ensuing drive and Northern’s lead was once again cut to 3 points with 4:30 left.
But Northern would not wilt under the pressure, as the Knights started their next drive at their own 40-yard line and advanced into Hartland territory while eating up the clock.
Then on fourth-and-one with a minute and a half remaining, the Knights picked up a key first down, allowing them to then run out the clock.
What resulted was a jubilant celebration by the Knights and their fans under a post-game fireworks display at Hartland for what continues to be a dream season for the young program.
“I think honestly we can rely on our offense, and we know our offensive line can grind it out,” Moore said. “This offensive line has been the best unit that I’ve coached.”
O’Donnell completed 8-of-13 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for 113 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
Kosmalski also had 127 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns on 18 carries while also catching three passes for 63 yards.
Linebacker Peer led the Knights with 10 tackles to go along with his interception and touchdown, while Aaron Chretien had 7 total tackles.
Matt Finn also had a forced fumble, and Logan Hall had a fumble recovery.
Milarch completed 10-of-15 passes for 289 yards, 5 touchdowns and an interception for the Eagles, while Ridley had 7 receptions for 171 yards and 3 touchdowns and Pierce had 2 catches for 100 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Northern had its first 5-win season in 2005, its third year, but would finish with only four wins the following three seasons.
In 2009 and 2010, the Knights were at the 4-win mark just before the end of both seasons, before losing streaks ended their playoff chances.
And last season, Northern was one victory away from a state-playoff berth, but fell at home in a heartbreaker to Northville, 56-49, in the regular season finale.
When Northern returns home to host South Lyon on Friday, Oct. 19 to conclude the regular season, it will be playing to celebrate the school’s homecoming, the team’s milestones thus far this season, and its senior class that helped make them possible.
With a win against the Lions, the Knights can also improve their chances of a home game to start the state playoffs.
“We haven’t been home in three weeks,” Moore said.
Against Hartland last week, it appeared as if it would be Northern’s night early on, when O’Donnell threw a 63-yard touchdown pass to Josh Paul on the first play from scrimmage.
After the Eagles fumbled the ball away on their second drive, the Knights would convert, as Andrew Fee kicked a 22-yard field goal for a 10-0 advantage.
Hartland would score on its next drive when Milarch pitched the ball to Anthony Villar, who then threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Ridley.
On Northern’s first drive of the second quarter, the Knights gambled on fourth down and it paid off when O’Donnell threw a screen pass to Jake Ginster, who then took the ball 28-yards for a touchdown.
Hartland responded on the first play of it next drive when Milarch threw a 62-yard touchdown strike to Ridley to cut Northern’s lead to three.
After Fee kicked a 39-yard field goal for Northern, Hartland struck back when Milarch threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Gigliotti and the Eagles had their first lead of the night, 21-20.
But, O’Donnell would score on a 2-yard touchdown run for Northern with 2 seconds left, followed by a 2-point conversion by Jake Ginster, to send the Knights into the locker room up 7 points.
That finish to the first half would set the stage for a second half that will be remembered for quite some time.