Hornets make their stand for 1-point win

HANCOCK – Rarely has the foot in football been so meaningful.

Friday at McAfee Field, L’Anse took advantage of a shanked punt to score the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, then held on to its lead by stuffing a two-point conversion attempt in the last half-minute to edge Hancock 21-20 in WestPAC football.

“The field goal (PAT kick) has bit me in the butt quite a bit, so I said, ‘You know what, we’re going to go for two, you’re at home, you’ve got the crowd right there, you’ve got to go for the win,” Hancock coach Matt Walter said.

On Hancock’s first two attempts, the Bulldogs’ Jack Fenton hit the left upright, then Hancock successfully converted a fade pass to tall newcomer Alex Almquist, so Walter elected to roll the dice. Hancock split three receivers to the left, but hit tailback Riley Engman in the right flat, where he was met confidently by L’Anse’s Ryan LaBerge and Brandon Kemppainen well short of the goal line.

Since transferring from Houghton, LaBerge has been plugged into more and more of L’Anse’s systems. Not only did he have first contact on the game-saving tackle, he made a difference with his arm (threw a touchdown pass), his hands (caught a touchdown pass), his legs (four productive carries for 27 yards) and his foot (made all three extra-points and kicked several touchbacks).

“I just go where the coach puts me and I just try to do my best. If that’s at wide receiver, I’ll catch the ball for him, and if he wants me to throw it, I’ll throw the ball for him,” LaBerge said.

This marks the fifth consecutive meeting between the two to be decided by 10 points or less.

“It was a battle where both teams were adjusting to what the other was doing and just a good football game,” L’Anse coach Mark Leaf said.

Hancock struck first, as Engman cut an option pitch inside for a 14-yard TD run late in the first quarter.

Tanner Kearly picked off fellow quarterback Jacob Ostermeyer two plays later, setting up a short field for what would be a 2-yard Engman dive six plays later.

The Hornets responded with a physical drive of nine consecutive runs ending in a 1-yard fullback dive by Ryan Beauprey, then tied it up when LaBerge hit Jonny Magaraggia on a 25-yard pass play late in the half.

“The tide of the game started changing in the second quarter, and I was proud of my kids, how they were able to bounce back after falling behind,” Leaf said.

The teams played to a stalemate through the third quarter and into the fourth, but after a Hancock three-and-out at the 25, Kearly shanked a punt over the L’Anse bench for a net of minus-1 yards. L’Anse needed four plays to find the end zone, this time with Ostermeyer finding LaBerge on the left for a 10-yard play.

After its ensuing drive failed, Hancock gambled that, with 7:24 to go, it would get the ball back and it did after just five L’Anse plays.

Kearly, with 4:25 to go and 77 yards to gain, piloted his Bulldogs down the field in 14 small chunks (Hancock’s longest play was 15 yards). The senior completed 10 passes for 60 yards on the drive, got to the sticks on a critical fourth-down scramble and even drew 15 yards the hard way when a Hornet defender yanked his face mask.

Walter said the two-minute drill is a staple of Thursday practices and his experienced QB ran it well.

“We were prepared for that, we did a very good job. Tanner did a very good job of managing,” he said.

After a 15-yard swing pass to Jared Peryam and a four-yard run by Brandon Barnes put the Bulldogs on the 1, Hancock called its final timeout. Fittingly, Kearly’s number was called and he pushed it over the middle for the score that drew the Bulldogs not quite even.

Ostermeyer gobbled up the onside kick and L’Anse took a knee and a 3-1 record (2-1 WestPAC) into next Friday’s non-league rivalry game with Baraga.

Jimmy Veker ran for a team-best 98 yards on 19 carries.

The Bulldogs, now 1-3 (0-2 WestPAC) got 93 yards on 18 attempts from Engman, as well as 10-for-21 passing for 72 yards from Kearly, who hit seven receivers including the 6-foot-8 Almquist, who just joined the team this week and caught three balls for 23 yards in the two-minute drill.

Hancock hosts Calumet next Friday.

“The one thing our coaching staff learned is we have fight,” Walter said. “We have fight, but we just can’t make the mistakes, especially secondary. It killed us last year and it killed us this year.”