In sports, you don’t often get a second chance.
Harper Creek was minutes away from going to the state title game in football for the first time in school history, this time last year.
But Orchard Lake St. Mary’s took that chance away and took the Beavers’ spot at Ford Field. It was an opportunity lost.
Harper Creek gets a second chance at that same opportunity on Saturday as the Beavers face Orchard Lake St. Mary’s once again with a trip to Ford Field and the state finals on the line.
Harper Creek will play Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in the Division 3 state semifinals in the MHSAA football playoffs with the game 1 p.m. Saturday at Chelsea High School.
The Beavers see it as a chance they don’t want to have slip away.
“It’s always hard to beat somebody twice, and Orchard Lake is going to have to beat us for a second time. So we have the advantage there we think,” said Harper Creek senior Colton Eischen. “It’s great we are back in this game against the same team and hopefully we are going to be on the winning side this time.”
Orchard Lake St. Mary’s is one of the premier programs in the state and after the Eaglets beat Harper Creek last year, they went on to win the Division 3 state title, so they are defending state champs. Prior to that state title, Orchard Lake had been to the state final two times in a row, losing both.
So it can be a little intimidating when you are facing such a perennial power.
And that might have been the case last year for Harper Creek, but after the Beavers led in the final minute of that game and only lost 14-10, the boys from the Cereal City aren’t in awe any longer.
“What we got from that experience is that we can play with them. Speaking for myself, I’ll be honest with you, we were in awe of them last year going into that environment – playing such a great team and a great program,” Harper Creek coach Ed Greenman said. “But we were up, they have to go 80 yards in the final minutes to beat us, so there shouldn’t be the wow factor this Saturday.
“You never know, until you know. And we learned from last year that we can play with the big boys.”
Harper Creek is one of the big boys in high school football also, of course. The Beavers are in their second straight state semifinals and the year before that, Harper Creek had advanced to the regionals. To go that deep in the playoffs three straight years has rarely been done in the Battle Creek area.
But as they have found out, the deeper you go in the postseason, the harder the matchups and the harder it is to lose, if you fall short. That experience will also be of help to the Beavers this weekend.
“Going through that last year will help this year,” Harper Creek senior Jared Koerner said. “A lot of us remember the pain we felt after losing this game last year and we don’t want that feeling again. We just are really playing to get to Ford Field.”
Orchard Lake comes into the contest 10-2, but has played one of the tougher schedules in the state. The Eaglets’ two losses both have come against teams still alive in the postseason in Muskegon and Detroit Catholic Central. They also have wins against teams still alive in the playoffs, including Birmingham Brother Rice and Detroit Cass Tech.
Orchard Lake has also scored 40-plus points in each of their playoff victories as they have rolled into the fourth round.
The Eaglets get it done with a big offensive line and a strong running attack.
“It’s the same team as last year, they return a lot of their kids,” Greenman said. “They have an outstanding offensive line, with power off-tackle being their favorite play. Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler would be proud if they were here watching because they just say, ‘this is what we are going to do, now stop us.”
Harper Creek doesn’t have to take a backseat to Orchard Lake in the running department as the Beavers feature the school’s all-time record holder in rushing yards and touchdowns in Kasey Carson, who has 1,799 yards this season with 25 touchdowns.
The Beavers, also 10-2, haven’t had it as easy in the playoffs, having to rally for wins in the postseason in the second half of games to stay alive. But the result is they are still alive and get a chance at redemption against Orchard Lake this weekend.
“We have been behind in a couple of these playoff games, but have come back to win and I think that is because our group has matured over the season,” Greenman said. “In the beginning of the year we may have panicked a bit, but you look in the eyes at halftime and you don’t see the deer in the headlights kind of eyes, it’s the eyes of a confident team. And I think we’ll be confident going into this game with Orchard Lake, too.”