Shelby Tigers become the first area team to earn an automatic playoff berth

By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – There wasn’t one offensive category in which Shelby led Oakridge Friday night, in the clash of West Michigan Conference unbeatens at Oakridge’s Erickson Jack Schugars Field at Russell Erickson Stadium.

Shelby QB Andy Fortier scrambles away from Oakridge's

Shelby QB Andy Fortier scrambles away from Oakridge’s D.J. Bowen Friday night. (Photo/Jeff Peterson)

All but one, that is.

Despite being outgained 378-223 in total offense; in spite of losing the time-of-possession battle 30:39-17:21 (including a nearly nine minute time-of-possession deficit in the third quarter alone); even though Oakridge held a 22-9 advantage in first downs; despite all this, the Shelby Tigers won the one stat that really matters, pulling out the 22-19 victory over the host Eagles.

And they did it in dramatic fashion.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Shelby head coach Lorenzo Rodriguez. “That was exhausting. I’m going to sleep well tonight.

Trailing by five with less than 20 seconds left on the clock, Shelby reached deep into the playbook and pulled out the old hook-and-ladder play – where the quarterback throws downfield to a receiver, who then pitches it to a teammate who then, ideally, takes the pitch and runs up the sideline for the winning score. It rarely works, but when it does, it’s a thing of beauty.

At least it was a thing of beauty for fans on one side of the field.

Ironically, only moments before, Eagle fans on the other side thought they had the game sewn up, as their team put together a 13-play drive that covered 73 yards in a little over three minutes. With just 45 seconds left, Oakridge QB Austin Wright turned disaster into gold, taking a poor long snap, which found the ball on the ground at Wright’s feet, into a 12-yard TD pass to senior Alex Torrenga to make it 19-14.

Following the score, Oakridge coach Cary Harger alerted his players the play heads-up football.

“As soon as (we score), of course, I’m looking at the clock and thinking, ‘OK, now we have to put the brakes on them.'”

And it looked to be working, as the Tigers embarked upon what look to be a futile effort to come back. Starting with just :38 seconds left, Shelby earned little success on first and second down.

On third down, though, and with 18 seconds remaining, Rodriguez called the play of the night. Shelby senior QB Andy Fortier tossed a pass into the middle of the field to Dylan Unger, who quickly pitched it to teammate Devin Mussell, who took it 56 yards down the east sideline for the winning score.

“We practiced that play two years ago, three times during the season, and we ran it in a game and it worked for us,” said Rodriguez.

The coaching staff decided to bring it out of deep freeze this season because, according to Rodriguez’s calculus, it might come in handy.

“We may need to use that thing down the road,” he recalled. “This year we have practiced it a little bit more than in the past.”

The opposition knew something funky was probably coming the Eagles’ way.

Oakridge QB Austin Wright  (Photo by Jeff Peterson)

Oakridge QB Austin Wright runs up the sideline against the Shelby defense. (Photo/Jeff Peterson)

“We had a good idea that (trick play) was coming,” said Oakridge head coach Cary Harger. “They caught us a little little out of position and hit it just perfect.”

“We keep (that play) in our back pocket” for times like this, said Fortier. “Just putting it out there and hoping for a great play.”

Great plays abound in this classic, starting with Shelby’s second drive, going 80 yards in seven plays, keyed by several hard runs from senior fullback Forest Courtright, and culminating on a fourth-and-one from the Oakridge 40. Mussell busted through a belly trap at the middle of the Eagles’ defensive line and took it the rest of the way for the score. The extra-point was missed
The Eagles – who opened the contest with a 67-yard drive down to the Tiger 13, only to watch as Brad Cook’s 28-yard field goal sailed wide right – answered with a mammoth 11 play, six-minute drive that senior back Dan Shoop capped with a two-yard blast to make it, following Cook’s PAT make, 7-6 Oakridge at the half.

Even with the lead, Harger realized fairly early on that the long, time-consuming drives also have a downside; that is, the Eagles were forced to run a lot of plays. Eventually, the Tigers’ bend-but-don’t-break approach to the Oakridge offense, which will run you ragged if you give up to it big plays, may eventually pay off.

Harger said he was surprised his offense wasn’t breaking off bigger gains, “because we thought we had an advantage in numbers and they were just flying to the ball and getting us for shorter chunks and putting us a little deeper into the playbook.”

“Both (defenses) made the offenses drive down the field,” said Rodriguez. “That’s tough to do. I don’t care if you’re ranked one, or two, or ten. When you have to drive down the field (a long way) 10,  11, 12 yards a play, you’re asking a lot of a high school team.”

Oakridge opened the second half with another dominating, old-school drive that chewed up nearly six minutes of clock and found the Eagles facing a fourth-and-one on the Tigers’ seven. Shoop, stretching for the first down, had the ball knocked from his hand, where it rolled around until Shelby’s Brody Lee found it bouncing on the turf in front of him and returned it 84 yards for the go-ahead score. Following Fortier’s three-yard keeper on the ensuing two-point conversion, suddenly Shelby led 14-7.

“We knew that if we got them out of the tight-T and we made them go to the spread and the shotgun,” Rodriguez explained, “we had watched film of these guys and they had put (the ball) on the carpet several times. With snaps over the head or at the feet, on bad exchanges.”

Oakridge answered on its next possession, an 80-yard drive that was capped with a little Eagle playbook razzle-dazzle themselves that the offense perfectly executed. On second and 10, Wright fake a throw to the right and then turned back playside to launch a 32-yard TD throw to Dom Greenawalt, who hauled in the pass and rambled down the left sideline for the score. Cook’s PAT attempt was blocked, leaving the score at 14-13 Shelby.

Then came all of the late-game excitement that left Tiger fans elated and Eagle fans stunned.

Oakridge's Jerick Wambaugh stretches out for yards versus Shelby. (Photo by Jeff Peterson)

Oakridge’s Jerick Wambaugh stretches out for yards versus Shelby. (Photo/Jeff Peterson)

“There was always that feeling that there’s no way,” said an elated Fortier. “We got to have one more (play) left in us, you know? I love these guys to death; we never quit, and it showed tonight.

“It just means the world to come in here senior year, pull it out,” he continued. “I’ve never beaten these guys before. It feels awesome. It feels awesome.

“They’re the cream of the crop of this West Michigan Conference, man,” he added. “There is a reason they’ve won it four years in a row. All those state championships up there. We just beat a really good football team.”

As happy as the Tigers felt, the depressed Oakridge faithful tried to celebrate Homecoming. Harger was gracious in the loss.

“We knew going in that they were very efficient team in what they did,” he said. “Unfortunately for us, they had literally some bounces go their way. It’s unfortunate for us, but it was a heck of a conference-leader game.”

Now it’s Rodriguez’s task – if his squad is going to take the outright league title – to get his team’s prepared for upcoming conference games with North Muskegon and Ravenna. Yet, after the drama he’d just witnessed, Rodriguez didn’t seem all that concerned about his team losing focus.

“What we demonstrated tonight, the love for each other, the team unity, the fan base that comes together as a total team, from top to bottom,” he said. “That’s what’s going to keep us focused for the next couple weeks. We still have a couple of tough ball games to go. We’ll be battled-tested by the time we get there.”

Courtright led the Tiger rushing attack with 78 yards on 16 carries, with Mussell adding 52 yards on five carries. Fortier finished with 5-of-12 passing for 94 yards and a score, while Mussell had two catches for 62 yards, including the winning score.

For Oakridge, Wright finished with 13-of-19 passing for 145 yard and two scores, with Shoop leading all rushers with 81 yards on 20 carries. Teammate Jerick Wambaugh totaled 75 rushing yards on 14 carries and Wright added 50 yards on seven carries.

Greenawalt led all receivers with 71 yards on four catches and a score, and Wambaugh added four grabs for 27 yards in the loss.

Defensively, Courtright was literally all over the field, finishing with 17 tackles (12 solo) from his linebacker position, while Mussell and Saul Salgado totaled 11 stops each for Shelby.

Oakridge’s David Dykstra led the Eagle effort with nine tackles, with two tackles-for-loss, while Caleb Cook had seven stops and Wambaugh six stops in the losing effort.

Coming into the contest, Oakridge was the top-ranked team in Division 5, while Shelby was rated 10th in Division 6.