GRAYLING — Early on it appeared the Grayling football team was poised to hand Traverse City St. Francis its second loss of the season, when the Vikings landed a couple of early body blows to take a 14-0 lead.
But, it was not to be.
The Gladiators (1-1) picked themselves off the canvas and started hammering away at the Vikings (1-1), getting them up agains the ropes and then applying the knockout punch for a 42-20 victory last Friday night in Grayling.
“Kids came out on fire, and kind of punched them (the Gladiators) in the mouth,” Vikings coach Eric Tunney said. “Give credit to them, they hung it out and kind of worse us down towards the end of the game.
“It’s hard, because I’m proud of the kids and how they fought, but we have to learn to keep the pedal down and get off the field on defense, then execute on offense throughout the whole game.”
After that quick burst to start the game, Grayling’s offense started to sputter, scoring only once more before the half. Meanwhile, the Gladiators scored two touchdowns to narrow the margin to six points, 20-14 at the intermission.
St. Francis scored its last touchdown of the first half on a busted play, with quarterback Charlie Peterson scrambling around end and reaching the end zone. Peterson had hooked up with Jimmy Muzljakovich earlier in the half.
The Gladiators kept on rolling, opening the second half with a seven-minute drive, with Luke Biggar finishing the 75-yard march with the first of his two second-half scores. It gave them a 21-20 lead they would not relinquish.
Ventline has big night
Grayling quarterback Hunter Ventline had a big day, completing 8 of 14 passes for 148 yards and three touchdowns. Five of those went to Anthony Fisher for 124 yards and two TDs. Hunter found Andrew Kanary for a 15-yard strike.
Sault Ste. Marie handed the Gladiators a 14-7 defeat in the season opener, and Tunney knew St. Francis would come into the game itching to get back on the winning track.
“They’re one of the top 10 programs in state history, so anytime you play a good team you can’t give them anything,” Tunney said. “If you do they’ll take advantage of it, which they did.
“What I like is that there were years when we were beat before we even got off the bus just because it was St. Francis. The good news is I think we’re past that point.”
“But, we still have to learn to how to finish, and sustain that level of play through all four quarters. They adjusted some things defense, and we couldn’t really get a sustained drive.”
“We had a few errors and a few drops that just killed us. We had a big drop on third down, and then fumble a snap on the punt. You can’t do that against good teams.”
Defense gets worn down in second half
St. Francis had two long drives of 18 and 14 plays, respectively, that not only chewed time off the clock, but served to tire the sagging Grayling defense in the second half.
“We just have to be able to make those stops, and get off the field on defense,” Tunney said. “I think they had twice as many plays as us. That doesn’t usually bode well for offense.
“Granted, we scored early and often in the first half. Our drives were pretty short as far as playwise. They have more players on the roster. We have to get in shape, and figure out a good way to keep our guys fresh to make it the whole game.
“It was a warm night. We had cramps, and they had cramps, too. It was the first time we’ve really been tested. We just have to learn from our mistakes and get ready for Benzie.”
Millikin rushes for 93 yards
David Millikin rushed for 93 yards on 11 carries to lead the Vikings. Ventline added 36 yards on five attempts.
Fisher led the defense with 15 tackles, nine solo hits. Millikin had 16 stops, eight solos and eight assists. Reid Cvitkovich finished with seven solo tackles and four assists with a fumble recovery. Drew Kanary was in on 12 tackles, six of them solo hits and had one forced fumble. Jordan Wakeley had four solo tackles, two assists and one sack.
“I love how we know how good we can be,” Tunney said. “We took it to them, and we know we have some guys that can play ball. Offensive line played pretty well. If we can get all five clicking, that will certainly help.”
“It’s experience, too. We have some young guys. I know we have some guys that can play the game. We can build on that. We can spread the ball out because we have some weapons on offense.”
Grayling is home again this Friday for a Northern Michigan Football League Legends game against Benzie Central at 7 p.m.