By Mitchell Boatman

NORTON SHORES – A big win is still a big win, particularly in the playoffs, even if it’s only secured by a single yard as the clock ran out.

Defending state champion Mona Shores overcame a 10-point deficit, then held off a furious late rally to beat Forest Hills Central 28-25 on Friday night in a Division 2 district semifinal thriller at Sailor Stadium.

Elijah Johnson leaves the Forest Hills Central defenders behind as he races untouched for a touchdown. Photo/Eric Sturr

The Sailors won because they stopped FHC at the one-yard line on the game’s final play.

Forest Hills had the ball on the Sailor 26 with nine seconds remaining. Instead of attempting a game-tying field goal, the Rangers threw a deep pass, which was caught, but the receiver was ruled down just short of the goal line as the clock ran out, bringing a gasp of relief from Sailor fans everywhere. 

Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak told his team to let this be their “scare game” as they move on in their effort to defend their state title.

“It seems like every playoff run we have, we have one,” Koziak said, citing last year’s 20-13 first round win over Midland. “It could have very easily went the other way tonight, but we’re the ones that are practicing next week. I hope these kids internalize that and remember that in practice on Monday. I want our kids to understand we were this close to possibly not being together next week.” 

The Sailors had never trailed in a game this season, but found themselves behind at halftime and into the fourth quarter.

“A lot of things went bad, but our kids found a way to win,” Koziak said. “This was the first time we’ve been down all year. We were in uncharted waters, and we weren’t used to that. I’m proud of the way the kids responded, because not only were we down in the first half, we were down late in the game and they found ways to come back.”

Senior quarterback Brady Rose, despite losing a pair of fumbles, once again led Mona Shores with 255 yards rushing, 73 yards passing, six tackles and three rushing scores.

“It wasn’t our best game – we need to play better,” Rose said. “For our team to keep fighting, keep fighting and come back in the second half was unbelievable. Our team just doesn’t want to be done.”

Elijah Farnum cuts and picks up a Sailor first down. Photo/Eric Sturr

This was the third time in four seasons that the Sailors and Rangers met in the playoffs. Mona Shores beat FHC 34-28 in 2018 en route the state finals, and FHC topped the Sailors 28-21 in a 2017 district final. 

Mona Shores (8-0) now advances to play Caledonia (4-4), which beat Lowell 55-38 Friday. Forest Hills Central ended the season with a 6-2 record. 

Mona Shores got on the board first with 3:51 remaining in the opening quarter. Rose capped a 97-yard drive with a 57-yard touchdown run to put the Sailors up 7-0.

On the ensuing Ranger drive, kicker Luke Gustafson nailed a 47-yard field goal to make it 7-3 with five seconds left in the first quarter. 

The Sailors appeared to extend their lead on the next drive, but a touchdown was taken off the board due to a holding penalty. Two plays later, Rose lost a fumble at the Ranger five-yard line. 

The Rangers took advantage, marching down the field on a 94-yard drive, which was capped by a one-yard score by quarterback Hunter Robinson. The TD and extra point gave FHC a 10-7 lead with 2:10 to play in the half.

Mona Shores moved the ball on its next possession, but another turnover inside the FHC 30 killed the drive and left the score at 10-7 at halftime.

The Rangers gained a ton of momentum to start the second half when Jacob Bonnett returned the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown, extending the FHC lead to 17-7.

Mona Shores’ Jeff Lenartowicz takes down FHC’s Ben Scholler. Photo/Eric Sturr

Mona Shores calmly responded, finding the end zone nine plays later on a one-yard dive by Rose to cut the Sailors’ deficit to 17-14 with 7:40 to play in the third.

Forest Hills used nearly the rest of the quarter on its next drive, running 16 plays and taking 7:31 off the clock, but the Sailor defense held strong. The D line stuffed Robinson at the 2-yard line on a fourth and goal rush to force a turnover on downs and keep the Mona Shores deficit at three points.

Rose then led the Sailors down the field for a 14-play, 98-yard scoring drive, which he finished off with his third touchdown of the night from a yard out. That gave Mona Shores a 21-17 lead with 5:02 in the game.

The Rangers turned the ball over on downs on their next possession, giving the ball back to the Sailors with 2:10 remaining. Four plays later, Elijah Johnson seemingly iced the game with a 31-yard touchdown run to make it 28-17 with just 1:45 to play.

But the Rangers weren’t done. Backup quarterback Maguire Mahacek completed four passes and ran in a 12-yard score with 23 seconds left to keep the game alive. On the two-point conversion, he evaded a sack and lofted a pass to Bonnett in the end zone to make the score 28-25.

Forest Hills managed to recover its desperation onside kick and nearly found the end zone again. Mahacek completed a pass to Ben Scholler for a big gain to the 27-yard line, and Scholler got out of bounds with nine seconds left.

Instead of attempting a 44-yard field goal, the Rangers went for the win. Mahacek completed a deep pass to Jonah Spates, but he was stopped on the 1-yard line and the clock ran out to end the game. 

Johnson had 84 yards rushing for the Sailors. Elijah Farnum ran for 76 yards and had 43 receiving yards, while DJ Caviness and Gary Humphrey led the defense with nine tackles each.