DETROIT, MI - It’s crazy to think that just one year ago this story could have been totally different.
Instead of reporting on Lansing Catholic’s first MHSAA State Championship in 34 years after a 31-17 victory over Almont at Ford Field on Saturday, we would have been lamenting on how the No. 4 Cougars came up just short.
“Thank god for replay.” the first words out of Lansing Catholic coach Jim Ahern’s mouth at the Division 5 post-game press conference. “I think both those (replays) were very key to the outcome of the game."
Key is probably an understatement as the two overturned calls quite possibly resulted in Lansing Catholic winning its first state title since 1985 - despite three finals appearances in that time frame.
The overturned calls - which resulted in a Cougar touchdown catch and forced fumble - gave them a decided edge during a furious second-half comeback, scoring 24 unanswered points.
According to MHSAA Director of Broadcast Properties John R. Johnson the video replay system, which is in its first year of implementation at the high-school level, will also be used in basketball and hockey this season. “We have the technology, let’s use it,” said Johnson. And use it they did.
The first overturned call came shortly after the Cougars had come back to tie the game 17-17 behind a field goal from Jonah Richards and touchdown catch by Vince Salquist. Lansing Catholic’s Sam Edwards forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff of the Salquist score, but it wasn’t called that way until review.
Almont (13-1), ranked fifth in the state, had moved the ball effectively against the Cougars all night, finishing with 203 yards rushing and 116 passing. But the ruling kept the Raiders offense off the field at a key point in a tied ball game.
But perhaps the most consequential replay of the night happened to come on the biggest catch of the game. It gave the Cougars a lead from which they would not look back. Lansing Catholic quarterback Zach Gillespie connected with senior Mitch Raphael on a 23-yard passing touchdown in which Raphael was originally ruled to be out of bounds. Upon further review, replay showed that Raphael got one-foot in-bounds upon possession of the football.
“For him to have an NFL catch like that, even though it's one foot, I was just too happy for him," Gillespie said. "He just made a huge play. The Cougars’ exceptional play in the defensive backfield would ensure the win for Lansing Catholic as Zach Stone got his second interception of the game and his team’s fifth of the night, with 2:49 left to play.
It was a defensive effort in which Ahern was sure to praise his coaches Kelly Carrier, Mike Doran, and Pat Barner for before his press conference was over. “Those guys have done a great job all year,” said Ahern. “I really don’t do much with our defense. Sometimes I (question), ‘Why aren’t we stopping that play?...’”
“But they did an amazing job today.”
Gillespie capped the scoring with a touchdown in the final two minutes. It was a busy night for the senior signal-caller and defensive back after a finding it tough sledding for most of the game.
He finished with 187 yards and two touchdowns passing, 18 attempts rushing, a defensive interception and three punts - two inside the 20-yard line.
However, Gillespie completed just 11-of-23 passing for the night, threw two interceptions and the abundant amount of runs were the result of being flushed out of the pocket. It wasn’t easy for the busy QB, but he persevered.
“I don’t think I could have had a worse first half, especially in a championship game,” said Gillespie. “I was pretty down on myself but I maintained confidence in myself that I could make the throws and the guys got open for me.”
The Cougars (13-1) win gave Ahern, an 11-year Lansing Catholic coach, his first state championship and win No. 301 for his career.
"The message all week was let's get him to 301," said Lansing Catholic senior linebacker Sam Edwards, who had a team-high 19 tackles for the game.
"It means the world to me to be able to put on the jersey and play for this guy. It's kind of bittersweet (the seniors) won't get to do it again. It's good to end it on a high. There's no one that deserves this more than this guy right here."
As for the video replay system, it’s safe to say Ahern approves.