Huron Valley Lakeland headed into its annual rivalry matchup with Huron Valley Milford hoping to celebrate a state playoff berth on its home field at the end of the night.
But in the end, the celebration that was held after the game involved the Mavericks and their fans that stormed the Eagles’ field as Lakeland’s open door to the playoffs was slammed shut.
Milford edged out Lakeland on the road, 35-32, on Friday, Oct. 19 for its second straight victory over the Eagles to finish its 2012 campaign with a two-game winning streak and a 4-5 record.
“We had so many kids banged up, we lost five starters over the course of the night, but the kids played with courage and they finished the season the right way. I was very pleased,” said Milford Head Coach Pat Fox.
For Lakeland (5-4), last Friday marked the end of a disappointing three-game stretch to conclude what seemed like a promising season.
Three weeks ago, the Eagles were 5-1 and on the verge of clinching their first state playoff berth and Kensington Lakes Activities Association (KLAA) North Division title since 2008.
But, a 51-6 loss to eventual division champion Walled Lake Northern on Oct. 5 was followed up by a 31-12 defeat at Howell on Oct. 12.
Last Friday’s loss to Milford may be the most bitter of all for Lakeland because of numerous missed opportunities.
Lakeland was in position to take the lead for the first time late in the fourth quarter with just over 3 minutes left and trailing by 3, as the Eagles were at the Milford 11-yard line on third-down and 3. However, a personal foul was called on the Eagles on the ensuing play, driving them back to the Milford 26-yard line.
They would eventually turn the ball over on downs and that was as close as the Eagles would get in the fourth quarter.
Special teams were also key for the Eagles, as they failed on three extra-point attempts in addition to giving up a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Milford’s Jonathon Schwartz late in the third quarter.
But, the key play that is sure to be etched in the minds of the Eagles is Ross Heiman’s 6-yard pass to Beau Wilhelm with 11:44 left in the second quarter, in which Wilhelm fell down a half-yard short of the end zone after making the catch, giving the ball back to the Mavs.
Milford senior quarterback Alex Larson started his final football game on a strong note as he scored on a 6-yard touchdown run on Milford’s first drive that started at its own 20-yard line.
Lakeland punted the ball away on its first drive before Larson then found one of his favorite targets, senior wide receiver Jonathon Schwartz, for a 75-yard touchdown connection to give the Mavs a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
“The long pass was big and in the first half, our offensive line did well, as well as the running game,” Fox said.
After the key turnover on downs to start the second quarter, Heiman bounced back with a 6-yard touchdown run and the Eagles trailed 14-6 after a failed extra-point attempt.
But, Milford senior running back Robert Ritchie busted loose for a 50-yard run on Milford’s next drive before scoring on a 6-yard touchdown run to put the Mavs up 21-6.
“Ritchie is a great kid for battling. He hurt his knee last year and didn’t get his grip back until Week 5,” Fox said.
Lakeland answered on the second play of its next drive as Heiman connected with Wilhelm for a 74-yard touchdown, and Lakeland trailed 21-12 after a failed two-point conversion attempt.
The Mavs began their next drive at their own 18-yard line before driving down to the Lakeland 2-yard line. Daniel Wallace would then score on a 2-yard touchdown run to give Milford a 28-12 lead at halftime.
Both teams punted on their first drives of the third quarter before Dalton Christie scored on a 1-yard touchdown run for the Eagles to cap a 72-yard drive. After Heiman threw a 2-point pass to Wilhelm, Lakeland trailed 28-20.
However, the Eagles’ momentum was quickly deflated as Schwartz took the ensuing kickoff from his own 3-yard line all the way to the end zone for a touchdown, and the Mavs went up 35-20.
Milford backup quarterback David Onofrio relieved Larson in the third quarter and played the rest of the game.
Lakeland was able to recover as Christie scored again on a 1-yard touchdown run with just over a minute left in the third, but a botched extra-point attempt kept the Eagles’ deficit at 9.
After Milford punted the ball away to start the fourth quarter, the Eagles began at their own 14-yard line before Heiman threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Waite, who had left the game earlier in the third quarter with an ankle injury before coming back in.
However, Lakeland’s third failed extra-point attempt would leave it needing a field goal to tie the game rather than win it.
After forcing another Milford punt, the Eagles appeared to have momentum back in their corner for a chance to pull off a memorable comeback. But, the crucial late hit penalty in the Milford red zone put the Eagles out of field-goal range and Heiman’s last-ditch pass on fourth down to the corner of the end zone was just out of the reach of a Lakeland receiver.
As time expired, the Mavericks celebrated along with the Milford students that stormed the Lakeland field to claim bragging rights over their Huron Valley rival for a second straight year.
The Mavs were expected to make the state playoffs this season, but faced one of the toughest schedules in the lakes area that resulted in losses to KLAA West Division foes Hartland, Grand Blanc and Howell, as well as a non-conference loss to KLAA South powerhouse Plymouth.
“It was a tough start to the season, but we finished well and I’m glad our students could join in,” Fox said of Friday’s victory celebration.
Lakeland would then have to wait until Sunday, Oct. 21 to watch the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) selection show to see if it broke apart from a handful of 5-4 teams to sneak into the state playoffs.
But, it’s name never came up on the TV screen.