Dreams dashed: Negaunee Miners’ special season ends with loss in MHSAA Division 6 state championship game

Negaunee senior Phil Nelson, right, leaps to celebrate his touchdown with teammate Kai Lacar during the MHSAA Division 6 Finals in 11-player football played against Grand Rapids West Catholic at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday. (Photo courtesy Heather Abram)

DETROIT — Phil Nelson’s eyes were red Friday evening, as he sat at a press conference following his final high school football game.

The sting of defeat was still fresh for the Negaunee High School senior and his teammates after a 59-14 loss to Grand Rapids West Catholic in the MHSAA Division 6 state championship game in 11-player football at Detroit.

But the words he found in that moment were filled with pride. Pride in his team and what it had accomplished this season. And pride in his community in the middle of the Upper Peninsula.

“I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” said Nelson, who accounted for all 14 of the Miners’ points. “Negaunee was behind us the whole way. You could see it in the crowd up there. We’re a small town in the U.P., and no one would have thought we’d have that many fans. It was just really cool to see all of them.”

Negaunee’s dream season came to an end at Ford Field, but what a ride it was. The Miners were unbeaten through their first 13 games, matching the school-record win total set by the 2002 state championship team. The trip to the finals was the third in school history, and first in two decades.

Head coach Paul Jacobson stands next to senior Nico Lukkarinen, second from right holding the state runner-up trophy, after Negaunee played Grand Rapids West Catholic in the MHSAA Division 6 Finals in 11-player football at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday. (Photo courtesy Heather Abram)

“We’ve really talked about living in the moment,” Negaunee veteran coach Paul Jacobson said. “We always try to impress upon them, you have to remember where you’ve been and what you’ve had to do to get where you’re at today. I’m just proud of these guys and the way they’ve battled adversity and battled a ton of different stuff this year.

“Just the ups and downs, they’ve stuck together with a family mentality. I’m proud of these guys.”

For 24 minutes and 15 seconds of game time on Friday, the dream was still very much alive.

Nelson ran back the second-half kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, tying the game 14-14. The third-longest kick return in MHSAA Finals history was the also Nelson’s third kickoff return for a TD this season.

After that, though, West Catholic turned things up and ran away with the game. The Falcons scored 45 unanswered points to finish the game, setting an MHSAA record for points in an 11-player final.

Negaunee High School fans hold flags, banners and pompons while watching the Miners play Grand Rapids West Catholic at the MHSAA Division 6 Finals in 11-player football at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday. (Photo courtesy Heather Abram)

Most of the damage was done by running back Timmy Kloska, an Air Force commit who ran for 241 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries.

“I’d love to have ’22’ from West Catholic on our team — he’s a heck of a running back,” Jacobson said. “He’s a load and a half. He’s a heck of a player, and we didn’t have an answer for him in that second half there.”

All four of Kloska’s touchdowns, and 172 of his rushing yards, came in the second half. He had TD runs of 61, 16, 3 and 13 yards. His 61-yarder came just one minute after Nelson’s kick return TD and was part of a trend for the West Catholic offense — big plays.

The Falcons had touchdown passes of 72, 68 and 32 yards. Those big plays helped make up for a massive deficit in time of possession, as Negaunee led that category by more than 20 minutes of a 48-minute high school game. The Miners also ran 62 plays to West Catholic’s 35, but West Catholic had a 520-178 edge in total yards.

Most of that edge in ball control was gained in the first half, though, as Negaunee struggled to move the ball in the final two quarters.

“Our game plan was really similar from the first half to the second half, but you have to give Negaunee a lot of credit,” West Catholic coach Landon Grove said. “They did a really good job. They slowed the game down. They ate up a lot of clock. That’s a credit to them.

“They got us out of rhythm, and they kind of forced our hand a little bit by not letting us have the football.”

West Catholic went up 14-0 in the first half with a pair of touchdown passes from Bernie Varnesdeel to Carter Perry. The initial one was a 72-yarder on the Falcons’ first play from scrimmage. The second a 32-yarder in the second quarter.

Nelson put the Miners on the board on the last play of the first half, hauling in a 6-yard touchdown pass from sophomore Ty Jacobson.

Nelson’s extra point made it 14-7 heading into the halftime break. He also kicked the extra point following his kick return, which had tied the game before the West Catholic onslaught.

“We ran out of gas,” Coach Jacobson said. “I thought we played toe to toe with them for a half.

“We came out, Phil had a great return to start the second half, and I don’t know if we woke a sleeping giant, but it was a combination of that and just running out of gas. They just kind of got on a roll in that second half on us, for sure.”

In the second half, outside of Kloska’s TD runs, West Catholic scored on a 68-yard pass from Varnesdeel to Andrew McAlary, a Carson Beekman 31-yard field goal, and a 26-yard run by Elliot Zainea.

While Varnesdeel completed just 5 of 10 passes, he accumulated 225 yards through the air. McAlary had three catches for 121 yards with Perry snaring the other two for 104.

Kai Lacar led Negaunee with 45 yards rushing, while Nico Lukkarinen had 40. Ty Jacobson was 7 of 12 passing for 78 yards, including a 32-yard pass to Eli VanBuren that set up Nelson’s TD pass catch.

“Our team’s heart has been great all year,” Ty Jacobson said. “We’ve always stuck together through the hard moments. We’ve battled through adversity and just stuck with each other.

“That’s who we are.”

Paul Costanzo also writes for the MHSAA Second Half website, is a former writer at the Port Huron Times Herald and works at St. Clair County Community College.


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