CHARLOTTE – Ionia found it difficult to get points during its first few drives on high school football’s opening night in mid-Michigan on Thursday, but eventually the Bulldogs were able to convert on their chances.
Behind a big evening from senior Andrew Fox, Ionia scored 21 unanswered points to surge into the lead and beat Charlotte 28-21 in non-league action.
“We have only six or seven kids who took any snaps last year,” Ionia coach Mike Holes said. “Our team is so young and we grew as the game went. Down 8-0, then 8-6, then we led 14-8, so as the game went on we continued to get better.”
The opening drive saw Ionia drive inside the Charlotte 15-yard line but turn the ball over on downs after possessing it for nearly five minutes to open the game.
The next drive for the Bulldogs started inside Oriole territory but ended once again on downs inside the Charlotte 35.
After a quarter that had been dominated by Ionia, Charlotte took an 8-0 lead on a 33-yard run by Justin Anderson and a two-point pass that came off a bad snap on an extra point kick attempt.
Fox, who finished with 186 yards rushing, brought Ionia to within two points in the second quarter, scoring on a 3-yard run. He scored later in the quarter on a 4-yard run, after a lateral play totaling 54 yards that went from quarterback John Meyer to receiver Matthew Grand-Girard to Fox.
The second TD run gave the Bulldogs a 14-8 halftime lead.
“(Last year) he was our starting running back all season. He was one of our leading rushers with our quarterback last season, who graduated, but he’s our best guy and we knew we had to get him the ball as many times as we can either handing it to him or throwing it to him,” Holes said of Fox.
The Ionia defense increased the lead in the third quarter on a 6-yard fumble return for a TD by senior Brian Hamilton.
“It came down to big negative plays for us,” Charlotte coach Jeff Finney said. “We gave up a couple plays on defense and we had a few plays on offense that put our defense on a really short field and had one they picked up and scored.”
Charlotte made a last run in the fourth quarter after Ionia appeared to be putting the game away. The Orioles recovered a fumble as Fox looked to be plunging across the goal line for his third TD run of the night.
Charlotte took the turnover and moved down the field. The Orioles set themselves up inside the 10-yard line on a 27-yard pass from Dom Ghiardi to Preston Axel and scored on a 9-yard run by Anderson to close to within a score with under 10 minutes left.
Ionia took the ball back and on the first night of the season, the inexperienced Bulldogs put together a drive that looked like a clutch, late-season march. Long runs from Meyer and Fox ultimately got Ionia in a position to score on a 2-yard run from Fox – atoning for the fumble on the previous drive.
“I feel like our team really didn’t panic at all,” Fox said. “We kept our focus and our linemen made their blocks and made holes and got first downs.”
“That score was just a continuation of getting better and finding our pieces and seeing a lot of guys growing into varsity players,” Holes said.
Ghiardi, just a sophomore, led a gutty drive to keep the Orioles in the game, keeping it going with a 30-yard tackle-breaking run on a fourth down and nine and then scoring on a scrambling 10-yard run to pull Charlotte back to within a touchdown with two minutes to play.
“Dom is going to be a great quarterback for us,” Finney said. “We need to fix a few things up front but we’ve got the skill position players to throw the ball down and create big plays with our quarterback.”
Ionia ran out the clock after recovering the ensuing onside kick with a 34-yard run from Fox on third down to seal the victory.