Benton Harbor, with four victories, scored a touchdown with 1:28 left to play Friday night to tie Class A Portage Northern, which also had four victories.
Because the Class B Tigers had already beaten three Class A schools, all they needed was to make the conversion kick and the first playoff bid in school history would be theirs.
But the kick was blocked, and the game went to overtime.
Before his defense took the field to begin overtime, Benton Harbor coach Elliot Uzelac gathered his players around him.
“Hey, what did you expect?” he told them. “That’s us; that’s Benton Harbor. We’re going to go right down to the end. We’ve been there before. Just go out and win it. Don’t worry about it.”
The biggest sack of Allante Coates’ life put Northern in a third-and-22 spot and Sean Hopkins came up with his second interception of the game to end Northern’s possession.
The Tigers took over at the 10-yard line. Quarterback Tim Bell carried twice and then threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Adrien Alexander, and Benton Harbor had the 29-23 victory. The playoff spot was secured.
The Benton Harbor fans streamed onto the field. Some Benton Harbor players knelt and cried. People took pictures of the scoreboard.
“Can you believe this?” the 74-year-old Uzelac asked Saturday morning. “We’re in the playoffs! It’s unbelievable! I mean, it is totally crazy!”
Uzelac, who didn’t get the Benton Harbor job until July 21, was still speaking in exclamation points the day after the school’s biggest win in at least six decades.
The fifth victory was one more game than Benton Harbor had won in the previous eight seasons combined and gives the Tigers their first winning season since 1989.
Of course it wasn’t easy. Benton Harbor’s kicker had injured his knee, and the top running back, Jeremy Burrell, was out with a thigh contusion.
“I’m hoping we have Jeremy next week, but Percy Brown stepped up,” Uzelac said. “Percy Brown played tailback, fullback, starting linebacker — our leading tackler — long snapper, and he’s on two other special teams.
“What a night he had. We’re going to put a big ‘S’ on his chest.”
Brown finished with 177 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries, and Bell gained 81 yards on 14 carries and completed 7 of 17 passes for 75 yards.
In a coaching career that began in 1964, Uzelac has been the head coach at Western Michigan and Navy. He was an assistant at Michigan and Ohio State, to name only a few of his stops. He has coached in Rose Bowls and assorted other big games, and now he will coach Benton Harbor in its first state playoff game.
“This one here is really special, because at my age you look upon things differently,” he said. “This one means so, so much to me because I have never been around a team that improved so much so fast in so little time.
“I am so proud of them for what they have done. Listen, I’m just the director. They’ve got to do it, and they did it.”
But coaching football is the least impressive thing Uzelac has done at Benton Harbor. He has raised funds to feed the players on a daily basis, and he is bringing in tutors to help them academically.
“In the school, I have zero problems with them,” he said. “In the classroom, with grade check every week, we’re doing really good.”
That is why meeting today in the school cafeteria to watch the 7 p.m. selection show on Fox Sports Detroit will be even more special for Benton Harbor than it might be at other schools.
Handicapping the field
Heading into the selection show, it appears the playoff field will include about a dozen 5-4 teams from Classes A, B and C. There will be only about four or five 5-4 Class D teams, and all of them will make it.
Earlier this week we figured Muskegon would be in Division 2, and that should hold true. The other surprises include Zeeland West likely dropping to Division 4 while Traverse City St. Francis could end up in Division 6, and that is a game-changer.
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.
Week 9 high school football highlights