When the Armada Tigers took the field at East China Stadium last night, they had no intentions of just playing a good football game against the 2021 Division 5 state runner-up, Marine City.
Even when they trailed 21-7 to start the fourth quarter.
Even when they tied the game at 21 with less than two minutes to go.
Or even when they were clinging to a 28-27 lead during the second overtime as the Mariners lined up for the game-winning 2-point conversion.
They didn’t just want a good game. The Tigers wanted the win, which was exactly what they got.
“I did [expect his team could win]. People might think I’m a little nuts, but I did,” Tigers head coach Kyle Rowley said. “They just come to work every day. It doesn’t matter what it is. They believe in themselves, they believe in each other, they believe in the coaches, and we just do what we do.”
It was an August season opener with a November championship atmosphere. Both teams came out ready to play and it came down to one final drive in double overtime.
The Mariners scored first, but Armada soon answered as both teams finished the first quarter with seven points on the board.
Unwilling to head to the locker room in a tie, Marine City forced Armada to punt and capitalized on the opportunity with a 45-yard march downfield for another touchdown, this time on a 23-yard pass from senior quarterback Jeff Heaslip (9-22, 164 yards) to sophomore Paul Muscat (61 yards, one touchdown). After junior kicker Brooklyn Zuziak sent the ball through the uprights, the Mariners were up 14-7.
They scored again late in the third quarter when Heaslip found junior Parker Atkinson (84 yards, one touchdown) from 31 yards out in the end zone. This time it was senior Ella Hensley’s turn for the extra point, which was good, extending Marine City’s lead 21-7.
Yet Armada didn’t look defeated. If anything, the Tigers just getting started.
“It’s what I said when I walked in three years ago,” Rowley said. “We’re going to do this and we’re going to make it special. Tonight, these kids, they made it special.”
They made it special alright.
It started when senior Vinny Fodale (51 yards, one touchdown) punched the ball across the line after a 65-yard drive to start the fourth quarter, and it was followed by a 6-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Lucas Pratt (9-12, 69 yards) to senior Leo Andrews (26 yards, one touchdown) with less than two minutes remaining.
After missing the extra point on Fodale’s touchdown, the Tigers still trailed 21-19. They’d have to go for two, so Rowley called a timeout.
His team hustled back onto the field, ready to trick everyone. A fake handoff soon became a completed pass in the end zone to senior Lukas Sleboda. The game was tied.
Armada forced the Mariners to punt on their next possession, but then gave them one final attempt to steal back the lead when Atkinson intercepted the ball and ran it back to the Tigers’ 11-yard line.
The Tiger defense remained strong, however, smothering the Mariner receivers and forcing two incomplete passes. On third-and-10 with eight seconds left, Marine City attempted a 28-yard field goal, but it was no good.
Neither team could find the end zone in the first overtime, so Armada lined back up on offense for round two.
Back-to-back handoffs to senior Kyle Coenen (98 yards, one touchdown) got the ball across the line and senior Tristan Erb successfully kicked the extra point, giving Armada its first lead, 28-21.
“I’ve got to thank my linemen. They don’t get enough credit and they do it all. Without them, I can’t run the ball, I can’t pound it into the end zone. It’s all on them,” Coenen said. “It’s the entire team. I’ve got a lot of confidence in all my guys. They’re all great, fantastic. I love them all.”
Even so, the game wasn’t over – Marine City still had one more try. On fourth-and-1, Heaslip handed off to senior Zach Tetler (128 yards, one touchdown) who busted his way into the end zone. The Mariners would choose to go for the win on a 2-point conversion, but as Heaslip approached the end zone, he was met by a host of Tigers.
“Just us at the end, that last defensive stop for all of us [meant the most],” Andrews said. “We work so hard on defense. We call ourselves dogs. [Defensive coordinator Clint] Conrad came up with the name and we’re just relentless on defense. We’ve been working so hard for this, so it’s just so nice to see that come into play.”
Leading the relentless Tiger defense was Fodale, who not only gave Armada 51 yards of offense, including one touchdown, but also recorded 10 tackles on the night. Sophomore Zac Dykes added eight.
"I think it’s great because that’s a championship team and we just beat a championship, so on that level that’s great," Rowley said. "I thought last year people started recognizing us, and I think now you kind of have to recognize us."
Marine City will travel to Clawson next Thursday while Armada will play its home opener against Yale, which defeated Annapolis 41-6 to begin its season. The Tigers will no doubt be welcomed and supported by a large hometown crowd.
“[Rowley] brought us all together. He brought us all together as a town. This is the first time we’ve seen Armada show up like this for football games and actually be excited to be here,” Andrews said. “It was great. I knew they were going to show up…I’ve got all my friends up there so it was really nice to have all their support.”
Add that on top of a thrilling double overtime victory and the Armada football team has plenty of momentum.
“I love this momentum,” Coenen said. “Going into the season against the state runner-up, it’s fantastic. We’re going to be a team to reckon with.”