This is becoming a habit for Ithaca.
The Yellowjackets were too much for Shelby on Saturday and will finish their season on Thanksgiving weekend in Detroit for the third straight season.
The 31-14 victory, Ithaca’s 41st in a row, gives the Yellowjackets a chance to play for their third straight state championship at 4:30 p.m. Friday at Ford Field against Constantine.
“To be in the position we’re in right now with 41 victories in a row and a have chance to play at Ford Field for the third straight year, it’s really humbling is what it is,” Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook said. “I’m so proud of those kids and the work that they’ve put in.”
It took some hard work to get past Shelby, as Ithaca held just a 14-0 lead at halftime. The Yellowjackets’ offense was struggling, having committed three turnovers, including two interceptions from 2011 all-state quarterback Travis Smith.
Smith admitted the game wasn’t his team’s best performance, but said he has already put all that behind him.
“We didn’t play our best football game, but you know what we’re going back to Ford Field and it’s just an amazing feeling,” Smith said. “This will be the third year in a row and it’s just a great feeling going from being a freshman and not playing, then as a sophomore going as the starting quarterback was a great experience, and it’s going to be a great experience again.”
Smith finished with 182 passing yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. He also added 158 yards and a touchdown on the ground
While Smith struggled early, senior Luke Bunting excelled, pulling down two interceptions in the first quarter. Bunting said his goal was to get the ball in the hands of the offense as much as possible. He also said the fact that the offense struggled may actually have been a benefit to his team looking forward.
“It’s good for us to face a little adversity and face that as a team,” Bunting said. “I think it’s going to help us next week.”
Hessbrook echoed the comments by his senior cornerback.
“We talk about that all the time, when you play championship football you’re not going to win 70-0,” Hessbrook said. “This is a good football team … and no game that involves a trophy is easy to win and (the team) understands that.”
The Yellowjackets added 17 points in the second half, a modest number by their standards. However, they made a statement with their opening drive of the half that changed the feel of the game.
Ithaca completed a 13-play, 991/2 yard drive that Smith said gave his team momentum.
“I was just thinking get first downs and move the chains and get the ball in the end zone,” Smith said. “We responded well to the adversity and it’s a great team to be around.”
The Tigers scored two touchdowns in the last 3:43, but the game never felt in jeopardy for the Yellowjackets.
Their prize is a rematch with Constantine, who Ithaca beat 42-14 in last year’s state final. Hessbrook said after last season he thought Constantine was more likely to make it to Ford Field this year than his team.
“To be honest with you, when we walked off the field last year after defeating Constantine in the state championship, I think we expected them to be and we weren’t sure if we were going to be back there,” Hessbrook said. “That will be a major, major challenge for us.”
Ithaca senior outside linebacker, Tyler Gibson, who finished with seven tackles and three for loss, is excited to see Constantine again.
“I’m sure they’re going to want to beat us pretty bad after last year and I think they’re going to come out swinging,” Gibson said. “We’re going to go in there with a pretty good game plan and we’re going to shut them down, hopefully, like we did last year.”