The way DeWitt and St. Johns have been coming through in the clutch late in games this season, both teams should have felt reasonably relaxed in the late stages of a tight one on Friday night.
But with a Division 3 regional title on the line and one team bound to have its season end, it wasn’t anything close to comfort.
For the first time in three playoff games, the Panthers didn’t need an overtime session to advance, as the Redwings botched a snap on what could have been a game-winning 27-yard field goal in a 29-27 DeWitt win.
“Fourth game in a row it came down to the last play of the game and you know, we’re fortunate,” DeWitt coach Rob Zimmerman said.
“St. Johns did a great job tonight, played extremely well and I don’t know how we did it but somehow our kids found a way to get it done again.”
Said DeWitt sophomore quarterback Jacob Johnson: ”We just know we can’t give up and we’ve got to keep fighting.”.
DeWitt (10-2) had to battle through two personal foul penalties on St. Johns’ last drive that gave the Redwings 30 yards and helped an already promising last-minute push right into field goal range.
St. Johns (8-4) wound down the clock and spiked the ball to stop it with eight seconds remaining, but never got the kick away as the snap became ensnared in lineman’s legs and never got to the holder.
“I couldn’t watch really. I was too nervous,” Johnson said as both teams looked on for the crucial play.
“It didn’t get through,” St. Johns coach Dave Mariage said.
“I’m proud of the way we got down there. We moved all the way down there and gave ourselves a chance and the kids held it together.”
St. Johns played a field position game for much of the first half, holding DeWitt to just seven points in the first quarter and stuffing the Panthers in the end zone for a safety after DeWitt turned St. Johns away on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line.
The safety gave the Redwings an 8-7 lead.
The Redwings took a 15-7 lead on a 55-yard run by T.J. Havens with 1:56 remaining in the first half. Havens finished with 141 yards and a score on 24 carries.
But DeWitt’s finish brought the Panthers to life.
The Panthers’ offense roared down the field and scored on a 36-yard pass from Johnson to senior Ryan Anderson with 38 seconds to play in the half to tie the game at 15.
On the ensuing kickoff, senior Anthony Anderson stripped the ball and ran 23 yards into the end zone to give the Panthers 15 points in nine seconds as well as a 22-15 halftime lead.
“I think we outplayed them, but when you make critical mistakes against DeWitt, you lose and that’s why we’ve lost,” Mariage said.
It was the Redwings’ turn to make a play on special teams to begin the second half, as junior Kalvin Butts recovered an onside kick.
St. Johns would score on a pass from Havens to Shayne Krumm to pull to within a point, missing the point after try.
Johnson scored on a 2-yard run to bolster the DeWitt lead to eight before senior Bryce LaBar answered with a 2-yard TD run of his own, but St. Johns missed the two-point conversion and the Panthers were able to maintain the lead.
Johnson finished with 171 total yards and two touchdowns to lead the Panthers, who will play the winner of Grand Rapids Christian and Stevensville Lakeshore in a Division 3 semifinal next weekend.