Updated: Dec 6, 2022
For the North Branch football team, this season has been about coming back stronger and more physical than ever before, and with 17 seniors on a mission to reclaim their 2020 conference title, the Broncos have done just that.
“We take pride in our [intesity]…We’re going to work, and we’re going to work extremely hard,” head coach Jeremy Ferman said. “Sometimes you’re going to get knocked down. Let’s get up, dust ourselves off, chin up, chest out. Let’s go see what we can do.”
The Broncos proved what they could do last night as they ran their way to a share of the BWAC title with 433 rushing yards to defeat last year’s conference champion, Croswell-Lexington, 35-21.
Ryan Henne led with 260 yards for three touchdowns, Lucas Schapman added 81 more for another score, and Aiden Swoish added one more with 65 yards on the night – a trio of seemingly unstoppable seniors all led by four-year varsity quarterback Will Damaska and a strong offensive line.
“Will and the rest of our seniors led us tonight,” Ferman said. “And shout out to our offensive line…We were well over 400 yards rushing, and that’s because our offensive line took care of business today.”
With the game tied 14-14 at the half, North Branch had back-to-back touchdowns midway through the third quarter to extend its lead 28-14. The Pioneers would need to score quickly to stay in the game, and they did so by sending junior Gabriel “Belly” Groppi on a 10-yard touchdown run.
“Belly Groppi told me, ‘If you need to give me the ball 40 times, give it to me 40 times,’” Cros-Lex head coach Mike LeGrow said. “I don’t know what he got up to, and we tried for him.”
Groppi totaled 577 rushing yards in the season’s first three games before he was sent to the sidelines with an injury. Last night was his first game back, and he was given tall orders as the Pioneers relied on him to carry the ball 23 times for 206 yards.
But as Cros-Lex was gaining momentum, North Branch closed the third quarter with Henne’s 65-yard run into the end zone. It was 35-21 to start the fourth quarter, and the score would remain just so through the final buzzer.
“All you can ask is to be in this situation, in a championship,” LeGrow said. “Give the boys all the credit, they did what they had to do, they just got a little short on the scoreboard side. With a team like North Branch and their offense, it’s death by a thousand papercuts.”
Junior quarterback Gavin Espinoza scored Cros-Lex's other two touchdowns with 36- and 16-yard runs, totaling 54 yards on the night.
The Broncos finished conference play at 6-1, tied for first with Armada, also 6-1, who handed North Branch its first loss of the season last week. Damaska said the loss was a good opportunity for him and his teammates to refocus as they head into late-season games.
“Tonight was super fun. After last week, we just didn’t come out. It was terrible. So coming into this week, we knew we had to be focused,” he said. “We didn’t know how it was going to go, but after seeing everybody come together again, it was fun.”
It was especially fun getting to claim a title on his home field alongside so many other seniors – many of whom had been “through the wringer,” as Ferman described being on varsity the last three seasons.
“It’s awesome. Last year Cros-Lex was really good. Sophomore year was fun, but this year, we had all the seniors and they’re all my buddies, so it’s exciting,” Damaska said. “I’ve played with all these kids from youth league and on. Everyone's just stuck with it and stayed committed. It’s good to have the younger guys with us and show them what it’s like, and hopefully they can carry it on.”
There’s a chance these two teams could see each other again in postseason play. The district assignments will be announced on Sunday, Oct. 23.
“One of the hardest things to do in all of football is to beat a good team twice,” LeGrow said. “Hopefully we can live up to that standard of being a good football team and if we have the opportunity again, have a little better shot at it.”
For in-game updates and other news, follow Calli on Twitter @ newberry_calli
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