By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal
BIG RAPIDS – Going into Saturday’s Division 6 state semifinal game between Shelby and Ithaca, Shelby head coach Lorenzo Rodriguez knew defeating the two-time defending state champion Yellowjackets would be no easy feat.
First, Ithaca hadn’t lost since 2009, when the team fell to Montague in the state semifinals; the team’s 40-game win streak is among the longest in the state.
Second, the Yellowjackets sport a vast array of weapons spread throughout the lineup, including junior quarterback Travis Smith, who is quickly gaining looks from Division 1 college coaches across the Midwest.
Finally, while the Yellowjacket roster is filled with big time playoff experience, the 2012 Shelby Tigers are the school’s first to play in any playoff game beyond the district rounds.
Nevertheless, Rodriguez and his upstart crew felt they had a chance to stun Ithaca and advance to the state final game.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as the Yellowjackets ran out to a 14-0 first-half lead to win 31-14.
“Their guys are used to the big stage, (while) it’s our first time here,” said Rodriguez. “I think it rattled us a little bit.”
Ithaca’s first scoring drive came following a Tiger interception by the Yellowjackets’ Luke Bunting. Taking over on its own 46, Ithaca drove the remainder of the field in six plays, when Smith connected with receiver Caden Kipp from six yards away to make it, following the successful PAT by Sage DeMull, 7-0.
After trading turnovers, the Yellowjackets scored again with three minutes left in the half. Taking over on their own one, the Yellowjackets put together a massive 13-play drive, ending with a two-yard TD run by Smith.
Shelby had its chances in the first half, taking over on the Yellowjacket 36 after Shelby’s Shane Kajtazi picked off Smith early in the second quarter. The Tigers failed to convert a fourth-and-three play from Ithaca’s 29.
On the next play, Ithaca’s Smith failed to field a bad snap, which Shelby’s Saul Salgado recovered. Taking over on the Yellowjacket 26, the Tigers eventually faced a fourth-and-22 near midfield, forcing them to punt.
In fact, the Tigers failed to score after Nathan Lentz picked off Smith at the Yellowjacket 38 with under two minutes remaining in the half. The drive stalled when Shelby quarterback Spencer Peters was called for intentional grounding, forcing the Tigers into a fourth-and-25 situation.
“We had the ball on (Ithaca’s) side of the field three times and came away empty,”said Rodriguez. “You can’t do that against a championship team because those guys have been around. They are 40-0…well, now 41-0, for a reason.”
For the players, the two-score deficit wasn’t insurmountable.
“The first game of the season, we were down 14-0 to grant,” said Shelby’s Peters. “We came back and beat them by two touchdowns. So, we’ve been there before.”
If there was any doubt as to the power of the Ithaca squad, those doubts we’re erased with the Yellowjackets’ 10 play, 85-yard drive to start the third quarter. Smith ably guide his team down the field, capping the drive with a perfect 29-yard pass to Jared Evers to make it 21-0.
Following a peters pick on Shelby’s ensuing drive, the Yellowjackets made it 24-0 with DeMull’s 26-yard field goal.
Shelby finally got on the board early in the fourth, stringing together a 10 play, 72-yard drive. On fourth-and-15, Rodriguez reached deep into the playbook, pulling out the old hook and ladder play, which was executed perfectly. Kajtazi sat down between defenders, and when they descended on him following a strike by Peters, Lentz was on the receiving end of Kajtazi’s pitch, which Lentz took the remaining 20 yards for the score. The Tigers failed to complete the two-point conversion, leaving the score 24-6.
But just as the Tigers seemed to be gaining their legs, Ithaca sealed the deal with a mere three play drive that Smith capped with a 33-yard scoring strike to Zach Allen to make it 31-6.
Shelby provided the final result with an eight-play drive that covered 85 yards in less than two minutes. Kajtazi completed the drive after beating the Yellowjacket defender down the left sideline to haul in the 40-yard TD pass.
“We didn’t quit, that’s for sure,” said Rodriguez. “But we didn’t compete the way I wanted us to. We dropped some balls early that were wide open. (Ithaca) didn’t defend our pass so we continued to throw. We didn’t capitalize.”
Peters said this team expected a lot of itself.
“This group of guys came in during the offseason and expected to be here and even farther. We all know this is as far as Shelby has ever made it, but it hurts to come up one game short.”
But the Tigers are already building for the next year, using the effort of this senior class as a cornerstone for future success.
“This is a great group of kids,” said Rodriguez. “They led by example. They got us to where we are right now. I just told the team that we are going to keep rising from here. If they want to take the torch, let’s get back here again next year and let’s change the outcome of this thing.”
Peters finished with 11-for-37 passing for 158 yards and two scores, while Devin Mussell led the Shelby ground game with 43 yards on six carries. Kajtazi hauled in three passes for 67 yards and a TD, with Lentz adding three catches for 51 yards and a score.
Ithaca’s Smith completed 11-of-19 passes for 182 yards and three scores, while also leading all rushers with 164 yards on 31 carries and a score. Teammate Bryan Shaw added 70 yards on 13 carries.
The Shelby defense was led by Ben Schroeder’s 15-tackle performance, while Dillon Ankney added 10 stops. Lentz had two picks and Kajtazi added another, giving the secondary a school-record 19 interceptions on the season