Last Friday marked a memorable debut in the state playoffs for Walled Lake Northern in more ways than one.
In a high-scoring game complete with turnovers and a little tension, the Knights held on to defeat Howell, 41-27, at home in a Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Division 1 pre-district matchup on Friday, Oct. 26.
“It was exciting. The kids lived it up and it was fun,” Northern Head Coach Brett Moore said.
Northern (8-2) stretched its school-record winning streak to eight games with the victory and will have home-field advantage for a Division 1 district final on Friday, Nov. 2.
The Knights’ next opponent will be Novi Detroit Catholic Central (6-4). The Shamrocks will serve as the ultimate measuring stick on how far Northern has come this season.
On Friday, Northern faced a Highlanders (6-4) team that started 2-3 before winning four straight to qualify for the state playoffs.
Northern led Howell 28-7 at halftime and started the third quarter strong as its defense forced a Highlanders turnover on downs at the Knights’ 25-yard line.
On the ensuing drive, quarterback Collin O’Donnell threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to Matt Kosmalski for a 34-7 Northern advantage to cap a four-play, 75-yard drive.
However, Howell answered right away on the first play of its next drive as Damian Menoch ran 60 yards for a touchdown to cut the Knights’ lead to 34-13 with just under 9 minutes left in the third.
Then with just under 2 minutes left in the quarter, quarterback Jonny Cheshire found Zebedee Garza for a 27-yard touchdown connection to cut Howell’s deficit to 15.
Early in the fourth quarter, Cheshire then found Garza again for a 65-yard touchdown strike before throwing a 2-point conversion pass to Austin Lord, cutting the Knights’ lead to 34-27.
“It was just a matter of going into coast mode and you can’t do that,” Moore said.
Just when it seemed that Northern was on the verge of a monumental collapse with just over 9 minutes remaining, O’Donnell turned to Kosmalski, who took a pass and fought his way down the sideline, fending off a tackle while staying inbounds and finding the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown.
That score put the Knights up 41-27 and deflated the Highlanders’ momentum.
“I’m not really impressed with (Kosmalski) anymore, because I already know he’s the best player in Oakland County,” Moore said. “We persevered and got back to playing fast football.”
Howell then punted on its next drive before Northern was able to eat up some of the clock before turning the ball over on downs at Howell’s 1-yard line.
The Highlanders worked their way into the Knights’ red zone hoping for a score and an ensuing onside kick, but Northern stood tall and withstood Howell’s attack as time ran down.
When O’Donnell took a knee to run the clock out, the Knights stormed the field in celebration. Their only miscue at the end was trying to give Moore a Gatorade bath and missing the mark as Moore saw it coming and moved.
Last Friday was a moment that Northern had longed for since its inception, to not only finally play in a state playoff game, but to do so in front of its home fans and come out victorious.
Kosmalski caught four passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 111 yards on 12 carries.
O’Donnell completed 9-of-17 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 87 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
Ginster also had 96 yards rushing and a touchdown on 11 carries, along with three catches for 40 yards.
On defense, Mike Peer finished with 12 total tackles to go along with a fumble recovery touchdown, while Kosmalski had eight tackles and Aaron Rabaut and Chase Burton each had four tackles.
For Howell, Cheshire completed 18-of-38 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns, while Menoch had 18 carries for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
It seemed as if it would be Northern’s night from the very beginning, as O’Donnell scored on a 59-yard touchdown run on just the third play from scrimmage in the game.
Then on the first play of its ensuing drive, Howell fumbled the ball away and P.J. Kern recovered for the Knights at the Howell 31-yard line.
However, Matt Finn would then fumble the ball for Northern and Cameron Englund recovered for Howell at its own 16-yard line.
After the Highlanders punted the ball away, Kosmalski then put the ball on the turf and Tyler Lassitter recovered for Howell at its own 36-yard line.
Menoch then put the Highlanders on the board with a 12-yard touchdown run with just over a minute left in the first quarter to help tie the score at 7.
Northern then started at its own 40-yard line and drove all the way to the Howell 1-yard line before fumbling the ball away for a third time.
But, with just over 9 minutes left in the second, the Highlanders fumbled the ball on a handoff at its own 1-yard line and Mike Peer recovered the ball in the end zone as the Knights led 14-7 with their defense picking up the points.
After a Howell punt, Jake Ginster scored on a 7-yard touchdown run for Northern with just under 5:30 left in the second.
Howell then turned the ball over on downs and O’Donnell threw a slant pass to Kosmalski, who took it to the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown connection.
The Highlanders drove the ball into Northern territory, but an emphatic sack of Cheshire by Aaron Chretien on fourth down preserved a 21-point advantage for Northern at halftime.
It was a fast and furious first half that featured a combined five turnovers by both teams.
“I’ve seen this kind of thing before. It becomes contagious. I couldn’t explain it,” Moore said. “But the fumble recovery touchdown was huge for our defense and they held the run well. When you force a team to throw the ball 34 times, you take them out of their element.”
The Knights know that they can’t afford such miscues on Friday against the Shamrocks, who have won 11 state championships and finished as the runner-up in Division 1 last season.
Catholic Central is battle-tested in the Detroit Catholic League and proved its mettle in a 21-15 victory at 8-2 Hartland in a pre-district game last Friday.
“We’re going to treat Catholic Central the same way as our other opponents. Every week is big and we’re going to keep it as normal as possible,” Moore said.