MARQUETTE --- Martin had it easy last year, at least from a stress and anxiety standpoint.
Sure, the 8-Player Division 1 Final was competitive in the first half, but Martin went on to win the championship game by 50 points, hardly anything to sweat too much about.
But this year?
Martin took possession of the ball on its own 15-yard-line with 1:15 on the clock and trailing by two scores, 26-14, to an Indian River Inland Lakes team determined to win its first Finals title on the football field.
And Martin won. A state title game for the ages, the Clippers claimed it 30-26 to repeat as champions despite also trailing 20-0 to start the fourth quarter.
It was still a 20-point margin, 26-6, when the Bulldogs scored what seemed to be the insurance points they needed with 6:26 left.
“It’s amazing,” Martin coach Brad Blauvelt said. “I’m not gonna lie – doubt creeps into your head when it’s 20-6, they’re driving down the field, they’re running the clock. … We made plays, we made plays when it counted the most.”
Inland Lakes built its big lead with a stout red zone defense – Martin got there on every one of its possessions but didn’t cash in until the final quarter – and a four-touchdown day from junior quarterback Aidan Fenstermaker.
It was the first Finals appearance for Inland Lakes, which had its two winningest seasons over the last three years. Coach Travis Meyer’s message to the team after such a heartbreaking loss was about focusing on getting here – no easy feat itself – and about the upperclassmen guiding the rest of the team so that their run of success isn’t complete.
“No one in the state, based on any rankings, based on any newspaper articles, based on anything really, expected us to do what we did,” Meyer said. “And then even the ones that weren’t totally shocked that we were here didn’t think it was going to be a four-point game. Regardless of when the points were scored, that’s still a four-point game, that’s a hell of a state championship. That could have gone lots of different ways, and I don’t think anybody really expected us to give them a shot.”
They certainly did that. Martin, though, had an epic response.
The Clippers scored quickly, going 70 yards in a minute and a half, with Haylen Buell’s one-yard touchdown run pulling the Clippers within 26-14 with 4:54 left.
The Bulldogs recovered the Martin onside kick attempt and marched right into the red zone on the ensuing drive. But they turned it over on downs with 1:33 left.
That meant Martin had to go 85 yards just to pull within one possession with the clock even more daunting than the distance.
It took them a minute. The Clippers capped the drive as Taegan Harris caught a 10-yard scoring pass from Gavin Meyers with 33 seconds to go. The conversion pass made it 26-22.
Everything came down to the onside kick by sophomore Ben Romero. The bouncing ball went off at least two Inland Lakes players before Martin’s Mike Branch recovered it.
Martin had tried an onside kick after its previous two scores as well, but this was the only one that worked.
“They timed it perfect,” Meyer said. “That kid has a heck of an onside kick, it gets there at the same time as his kids. Whether you’re ready for it, whether you’ve got your best athletes there or not, that’s hard to do, especially on a stage like this, in that moment. That is hard on anybody, even the pros.”
The Clippers took over at their 45 with 32 ticks on the clock. Before long they were at the 21.
Meyers looked to pass, scrambled and then ran 21 yards for the touchdown with five seconds remaining.
“It was a pass play, trying to get it to Abe (Dykstra),” Meyers said. “The middle opened up, and I just took off.”
He said he was just hoping to get out of bounds, with the clock running down, but he was able to get in the end zone.
“We thought we could keep them out for two more plays,” Meyer, the Bulldogs’ coach, said. “We lost contain somewhere there around the edge.”
The unfathomable score: 30-26 after the conversion.
Martin lost a lot of seniors from last year, including three all-staters. The Clippers didn’t win their conference, and they fell to 2-2 early in the year with losses to Bridgman and Gobles. They haven’t lost since, though, winning nine straight games with a young team.
“It’s nice to be able to leave a legacy,” said Harris, a senior. “Last year, we had a pretty stacked group of guys. We had three of our star players injured this season, it wasn’t looking good, 2-2, then we won, what, nine, eight straight? … It feels really good.”
Meyers, who threw for 216 yards and ran for 142 on Saturday, filled in for one of those all-state graduates quite well, J.R. Hildebrand.
“He’s a damn good football player,” Blauvelt said of Meyers. “And he’s grown a bunch. Halfway through the year, he started moving in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield. You saw it today, right, he kept his eyes downfield.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Inland Lakes scored twice during the second quarter. The Bulldogs took over for the final drive of the half at their own 12 with 3:05 remaining. They went for it on 4th-and-6 at their own 31 and again on 4th-and-6 at the 47. They converted both and were rewarded with a touchdown as time expired. Despite being pressured, Fenstermaker hit Jacob Willey in the corner of the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown pass that put Inland Lakes up 14-0 at the half.
Meyer said his team punted once this year and once last year.
“We don’t put a ton of time into punting,” he said. “So when the best we can do is maybe get off a 25-yard punt and they return it 10 yards before we cover it, we figured that was only 15 yards of field position anyway, so we might as well give ourselves a shot. It was playing the odds. Maybe people don’t like that logic, but we like to play aggressively. We like to see what we can do.”
They built the lead to 20-0 late in the third quarter as Martin came up empty on all four of its drives, even though every one of them got into the red zone.
“It was very frustrating,” Blauvelt said. “We saw on film, they stopped Pickford (in the Semifinal) inside the red zone multiple times, they tightened up when they got in there. We shot ourselves in the foot in the first half. But we moved the ball consistently, but yeah, that was a little frustrating. We had some good drives, and we just couldn’t punch them in.”
It just wasn’t as frustrating as the finish was for the Bulldogs.
Inland Lakes senior Payton Teuthorn said getting to this point was what they wanted since youth football.
“We made it here. We just couldn’t finish,” he said.
PHOTOS (Top) Martin players celebrate with their fans Saturday the program’s second-straight 8-Player Division 1 championship at Superior Dome. (Middle) Martin quarterback Gavin Meyers charges toward the end zone on the way to scoring the game-winning touchdown. (Below) Inland Lakes’ Andre Bradford (20) pulls in a catch as two Martin defenders converge including Bryer Watson (2). (Click for more photos by Cara Kamps.)