| Special to Detroit Free Press
DeWitt has been close many times, finishing state runner-up five times in program history.
Saturday night at Ford Field was not meant to be the sixth.
DeWitt (12-0) broke through with a 40-30 win over the defending Division 3 champion, River Rouge.
It’s the first state title for coach Rob Zimmerman, who has led the Panthers for 22 seasons.
“Yes, we’ve been so close so many times,” Zimmerman said. “It’s just unbelievable. This group of kids — we knew we had a shot with these kids. They are really motivated and driven. They played like they really won a state championship tonight. So proud of them; so happy for them.”
DeWitt opened the scoring with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Holtz to Blake Beachnau early in the first quarter.
River Rouge (9-2) took the lead once, in the second quarter with a brief 8-7 edge, after a 52-yard pass reception by Jalen Holly from QB Mareyohn Hrabowski, followed by a two-point conversion reception by Nicholas Marsh.
But Andrew Debri scored on an 8-yard pass and Nicholas Flegler scored on a 35-yard pass along the sideline to take a 21-8 lead into halftime.
Dewitt scored again with a a 25-yard touchdown pass from Holtz to Thomas McIntosh to increase the lead to 19 early in the third.
River Rouge quickly cut the lead to 27-14 less than two minutes later on a Hrabowski run. But DeWitt seemingly put the game out of reach with a follow-up touchdown. Debri scampered 37 yards for a 33-14 advantage as time expired in the third quarter.
River Rouge began the fourth with a four-play, 51-yard drive in 1:09, capped by a 12-yard TD reception and PAT catch by Marsh, cutting the lead to 10.
DeWitt followed with a deliberate drive, going 60 yards on 12 plays and taking 6:27 off the game clock, Holtz made a 2-yard scoring run.
“Holtz was tremendous at quarterback, certainly,” Zimmerman said of his junior who was 12-for-16 passing and added 118 yards rushing. “And I think we made plays, and in games like this you’ve got to make big plays when it’s crunch time, and I think we did. Offensively we played very, very well. I think we didn’t score only two possessions and defensively we gave up a few plays, but did well enough.”
The game was close statistically. DeWitt held the advantage in rushing yards, 226-158 yards, but River Rouge led in passing yards, 227-177.
“Obviously, River Rouge is defending state champ and is loaded with college players, so I’m so proud of our kids to be able to win this game,” Zimmerman said.
River Rouge has five players headed to D-I colleges: Hrabowski is commmited to Western Michigan, Armorion Smith to Cincinnati, Pius Odjugo to Central Michigan, Jalen Johnson to Ball State and Chance Moore to Morgan State.
“A loss gives you an opportunity to win again,” River Rouge coach Corey Parker said. “You get so much to learn from in that moment. Seeing how we played and knowing what we’ve got to adjust off season. At the end of the day, we’re fine looking at that scoreboard and knowing we have a chance to come back with young guys making plays and our older guys fighting to the bitter end.”