Too close for comfort: Hancock scores late to earn victory over L’Anse in season opener for both squads

Daily Mining Gazette/Eddie O’Neill Bulldogs quarterback Colton Salani (8) pushes his way into the end zone in the third quarter of a game against the Purple Hornets Friday at Volunteer Field L’Anse.

L’ANSE — One could have not asked for a better opening night for high school football than the thriller that took place under the lights of Volunteer Field in L’Anse. The Purple Hornets hosted the Hancock Bulldogs to bleachers full of students and parents from both schools. However, it was the Hancock fans who would make the 30-mile drive north with smiles on their faces as their Bulldogs squeaked out a 28-27 win in the last two minutes of the game.

With 2:09 on the clock, the Bulldogs took over the ball on their 44 yard line. Quarterback Colton Salani led the charge with an 18-yard pass play which then put them on the Purple Hornets’ 36. They then followed with a number of running plays to put them at first and goal. The Bulldogs plowed their way into the end zone to tie the game at 27. They then made the extra point to make it 28-27 with 22 seconds on the clock.

“That’s how these kids practice,” said Hancock’s head coach Ted Holmstrom. “We never stop and nothing is going to prevent us from winning.”

Up until those last few minutes of the game, it looked like L’Anse was going to win as they led most of the game. At halftime, they were leading by 14 points 21-7.

Hancock put seven on the board first with a 4:26, 56-yard drive in the first quarter.

The Purple Hornets countered with their own 80-yard drive from their 20 yard line. It was a drive that saw four first downs and some fancy footwork from L’Anse quarterback Reese Waara, a senior. Running back Jonah Dowd scrambled his way into the end zone avoiding a number of tackles evening the score at 7-7.

The Purple Hornets dominated the second quarter, which kicked off with a Waara interception on a Bulldog short-out pass. He was helped in this 2:33 drive again by Dowd, who split the defense with a 13-yard run. The Purple Hornets then chipped away at the Bulldogs and made it to their five-yard line. Waara then piled his way in and made the score 14-7.

The hosts would get one more before halftime as the Bulldogs turned over the ball on downs and L’Anse took over on their own 35. Waara moved the ball forward with a pass to Alec Rajala which put them in scoring range. A few plays later Rajala ran the ball in to make the score 21-7 at halftime.

In the third quarter, the Bulldogs started their own march to the end zone on their own 31 yard line. On second down, Salani hit wide-receiver David Storm for a 22-yard pass. The Bulldogs converted a fourth and 3 to keep their run alive and eventually put themselves into the goal zone when Salani punched his way into the end zone to make it 21-14 after the extra point was good.

L’Anse countered with a 78-yard charge down the field and a short touchdown run by Dowd. However, their extra point attempt was blocked by the Bulldogs’ Evan Larson.

That lost point would be a big deciding factor for the rest of the game.

Hancock’s Austin Salani flew down the field for a 76-yard kickoff return along the right sideline, where he avoided four tackles, putting the Bulldogs back within striking distance, 27-21.

“That got our boys going” said Holmstrom. “Interestingly it was our normal kick returner, Conner LeClaire who told me to have Salani take the ball and I listened to him and look where it got us. The kid (LeClaire) made the call.”

It was then back and forth between these two similar teams until the last few minutes of the fourth quarter when the Bulldogs put together a masterful 56-yard drive to tie the game and eventually win it with the extra point.

L’Anse’s head coach, Mark Leaf, was definitely disappointed after the game.

“Despite a good effort where our kids played hard, we just had too many mistakes,” he said. When you lead most of the game and then lose like we did, it is a hard pill to swallow.”

Coach Holmstrom was grateful for a great opening game on both sides of the field.

“Despite all the work in practice and a scrimmage, it is a different thing when you get out here on the field on game day. My hats go off to the L’Anse team. They played a great game. This one could have gone either way.”