The St Joseph Bears’ improbable run through the State Playoffs continued on Friday, as they took down Parma Western, 49-13. One of just four teams left in Division 3, the competition gets tougher. This Saturday, they travel to Jenison High School, set on a collision course with the DeWitt Panthers, the defending Division 3 State Champions.
The 2021 St Joseph season has been a story in three parts. First, the Bears raced out to a 5-0 record, winning each game by at least two scores, including a 75-0 offensive explosion against Okemos. As the calendar turned to October, the opponents got tougher. Facing the four most talented teams on their schedule was going to be challenging enough, but adding some crucial injuries to the mix made it even tougher. “We had so many injuries to overcome throughout this season”, St Joseph Head Coach Andrew Pratley shared.
As the postseason began, the Bears stunned the always potent Zeeland West Dux on a touchdown run in the game’s final minute, 29-26. The following week, they avenged a regular season loss against rival Lakeshore, capturing a District Championship in a 17-14 affair. Finally, they disposed of Parma Western in the regionals. This allowed St Joseph to earn their spot in the State Semifinals for the first time since 2007. “The resiliency this group has, battling through injuries and playing with that ‘next man up’ mentality stands out,” Pratley exclaimed. “They haven’t batted an eye. As players came back, we had healthy guys, players with new experience, and now its up to our coaching staff to put that puzzle together to give ourselves the best chance to win. We have been able to do that these past few weeks”.
St Joe averages about 10 pass attempts a game, relying primarily on their rushing attack. Trey McGinnis and Joron Brown are a strong 1-2 punch in the backfield, as each has eclipsed 800 yards on the year. McGinnis leads the way with 14 touchdown runs, while Brown has added 12. Quarterback Matt Lanier has also added over 400 rushing yards and 5 scores. “We run the football well,” Pratley stated. “That style of football is able to play in any weather, and being able to run and stop the run is always key to advancing in the playoffs.”
McGinnis has also made his presence felt on defense and special teams this fall. He has two interceptions, including one for a touchdown, and he also returned a punt for a score. These are two of eight scores for St Joseph scored by these two units. Brystun Mayberry leads the defense with four interceptions, while six other Bears have forced multiple turnovers on defense.
When asked about playing the defending State Champions, Pratley revealed that their focus this postseason has been far more internal. “We talked to our team about how you are not sure who you are playing each week. We have to play well. We can’t worry about our opponent, instead we need to play our best football in order to move on.”
Beating DeWitt will require the Bears to play their best football of the year. The defending Division 3 State Champions enter Saturday’s semifinal with an 11-1 record, winners of their last ten games. They also defeated Lakeshore, 50-14 in the regular season finale, and have a 47-27 win over Traverse City Central, who remains alive in Division 2. “We have a great deal of experience on our team, and that’s a huge strength for our team. Our leadership starts with the fact that we return eight starters on the offensive end,” DeWitt Head Coach Rob Zimmerman shared.
The leadership for the Panthers is best exemplified by their signal-caller, Ty Holtz. The Brown commit has passed for over 2,000 yards this season, including 354 yards and six touchdowns against Traverse City Central. Perhaps more impressive is his 23-1 record as a starting quarterback. “He is the best leader that I’ve ever coached”, Zimmerman proclaimed. “His motivation and drive is off the charts, and he has such an incredible work ethic. Ty is a 4.0 student who is extremely tough and competitive. With his experience and abilities, it’s a great starting point for our team.”
Holtz is not alone, joined by a plethora of talented players. That includes Tommy McIntosh, the Wisconsin commit at wide receiver. Bryce Debri has over 1,400 yards of total offense with 920 on the ground. Debri also has four interceptions and six sacks on the defensive side of the ball. Add in other weapons like Nick Flegler (Air Force commit) and Luke Bresser (Northwood), and this is an explosive bunch on both sides of the football.
With a trip to Ford Field on the line, experience may give DeWitt a boost, but the familiarity with this stage hasn’t changed anything in their preparation. “We still go about things the same way we did last fall,” Zimmerman revealed. “When you get this deep in the tournament, you need to avoid the big mistakes, whether that means giving up a big play, committing a penalty, or turning the ball over.”
Pratley echoed that same attention to detail in this semifinal, as he tries to direct St Joseph back to the championship game for the first time since 1988. “They are a tremendous program with so much talent. We need to limit the mistakes, because we cannot beat ourselves. We need to play clean football. At this point in the season, those breaks may extend or end your season, and we need them to fall our way Saturday.”