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Saline seeks to duplicate Clarkston's 2013 run

Football   | Jeff Dullack

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For the better part of Kurt Richardson’s first 27 years as head coach at Clarkston his Wolves were widely considered as the hunters. The program had never won a football state championship, or even played for a state championship.

Clarkston made the playoffs just once in the first 19 years of the state playoffs. The Wolves made the playoffs all but four seasons since reaching the semifinals three times (1999, ’00 and ’09). That shot at a title eluded them until last year.

But this year the Wolves have been the hunted, something they’ve embraced all year.

Clarkston ran the table winning its final 13 games last season and won its first football state championship. The Wolves entered this season with a target on its back, being the team that every Division 1 team aimed to unseat.

And now the Wolves, at 13-0, are one win away from winning a second consecutive state title.

 “It’s been a little different in that the bull’s-eye on our back has been a little bigger,” Richardson said of this year’s trip to Ford Field in comparison to last year’s road. “Everybody was gunning for us and I think the kids have responded very well. It’s going to be nice (playing inside of Ford Field). It’s going to be warm.”

Standing in the way of Clarkston’s second straight title is Saline, a team that has a story that the Wolves know all too well.

On Saturday at Ford Field, Saline (12-1) will make its first football state championship appearance. Game time is 1 p.m.

Saline coach Joe Palka, who is in his third year on the sidelines with the Hornets, said that there is a definite advantage for Clarkston, having the experience of playing in last year’s state championship game, but he and his team are focused on what they can control and are looking to weather the storm of playing under the lights of Ford Field for the first time.

“It’s really about us and that’s what we’re trying to get across,” he said. “It’s an advantage for Clarkston and all of the logistical things going through this week and have a few key people focus on that and have the kids focus on the game at hand. If we can survive the storm early, we’ll be in good shape.”

Both teams are led by star quarterbacks as Clarkston has a Mr. Football candidate in D.J. Zezula, while Saline has junior dual-threat signal caller Josh Jackson.

Zezula, who is in his third year as the starting quarterback for the Wolves, has a chance to lead Clarkston to a second straight state championship after the Wolves hadn’t had an appearance in their history heading into 2013.

“I know we’re all excited about getting back where it’s warm,” said Zezula. “But just to be back there is truly amazing to be the only two Clarkston teams to reach Ford Field and to quarterback both of those teams is pretty amazing.”

Jackson and the Hornets don’t have the same luxury of having the experience of playing in a previous championship game as Saline is coming off of a win over Cass Tech in the program’s first ever semifinal appearance.

Palka said that while it will be difficult to get ready to play on a stage as large as the Division 1 finals at Ford Field, he and his team are focused on keeping the same kind of regularity that the Hornets have been used to in their first 13 weeks of the year.

“I don’t think there’s any way to prepare for that or the first couple of minutes of the game,” he said. “What we have to do is preach normalcy. We just have to get there and get the butterflies out when we get out of the tunnel and trust what we do every day. This is a big moment for our team and our community.”

Like Clarkston’s run to the state championship game a year ago, Saline lost its season opener (31-28 to Muskegon Mona Shores) but the Hornets haven’t since.

Palka noted that this year’s run began during the offseason, but playing one of the state’s top teams to start the season made his team better and added that the Hornets are taking things one day at a time.

“The expectation has always been there, but the reality is harder to come by,” he said. “Playing Mona Shores at the beginning of the year helped us, and we saw that there were things that we could keep getting better with. The day-to day preparation has been our focus throughout the playoffs and that’s our focus this week.”

With the target on its back all season long, Clarkston doesn’t seem to have been fazed so far this season as the Wolves enter Saturday’s Division 1 state title game at 13-0 and have beaten opponents by an average of almost 20 points per game and know the pressure is on to win it again.

“After winning last year, we knew the target was going to be on our back,” Zezula said. “We just embrace it and we go with it.”