Chippewas rally, hold on to top Orioles in thriller

Manistee fullback Lane Gancarz breaks free for a 56-yard run during the first half of Friday’s 36-34 win against Ludington at Oriole Field. (Matt Wenzel/News Advocate)

LUDINGTON — For a second straight year, the battle between Manistee and Ludington hinged on a 2-point conversion in the waning moments.

And for a second straight year, the Chippewas made a big stop late to secure the Dad’s Trophy on Friday night at Oriole Field in the 121st meeting between the lakeshore rivals.

Senior linebacker Lane Gancarz broke through the Ludington line to force quarterback Chad Large into an incomplete pass on the 2-point try with 40.5 seconds left and the Chippewas held on for a 36-34 win.

“It’s always a tight game,” said Manistee senior Evan Slawinski. “They’re going to try their best and we’re going to try our best, but we got them.”

It was Manistee’s first win at Ludington since 1998 — which also marked the Chippewas’ last back-to-back wins in the rivalry — and Gus Kapolka’s first since taking over as head coach in 2004. He was glad to break that slide and get a win, but not thrilled with every aspect of it.

“Relieved, not pleased, not real happy,” said Kapolka, whose team scored on its final five possessions. “Obviously it’s better than the alternative, but we have lots of things we have to clean up.”

Slawinski accounted for four of Manistee’s five scores as he ran for two and threw for two. Senior Mason Swidorski threw one and caught one as the Chippewas used their traditional Wing T as well as a Single Wing offense.

“I thought Evan played a great game, I thought Mason played a great game,” Kapolka said. “We were able to kind of shift in and out of the (Wing) T and the Single Wing. We obviously have some things to clean up there, but when we needed to make big plays, we made big plays.”

Large spearheaded the Ludington offense as he ran for three scores and threw two more, while Jake Kacynski proved to be a physical threat out of the backfield and as a receiver.

“We never seem to play real well down here,” said Kapolka. “I don’t think we played very well tonight. I give (Ludington) all the credit in the world. They have two kids who are playmakers (Large, Kacynski) and I thought coming in that we would have all kinds of trouble matching up with, and we did.”

Manistee (1-0) opened its season by spotting Ludington (0-1) a 14-0 lead as Large scored on a 1-yard run with 2:38 left in the first quarter, then added a 51-yard scamper early in the second.

The Chippewas punted on their first three possessions, then were picked off after they recovered the third punt deep in Ludington territory.

But, they got the ball on the Ludington 35 and put together a five-play drive that was capped on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Slawinski to Jared Knapp with 3:18 to play in the first half to make it 14-6.

After a second straight defensive stop and touchback on the Ludington punt, Gancarz broke free for a 56-yard gain and Slawinski scored on a 7-yard keeper, then tossed the 2-point conversion to Haydon Codden to knot the score at 14 with 33.4 seconds left in the first half.

“It took us a little bit to adjust to what they were doing, we figured it out and we were able to get going,” said Slawinski, who had 13 rushes for 88 yards and was 4-for-4 passing for 49 yards.

“I think when they got us into one-on-one matchups, especially with (Slawinski) on our corners, they won all those,” said Ludington coach Charlie Gunsell.

Manistee mounted a 10-play, 79-yard drive to open the second half, which finished with Swidorski tossing an 8-yard touchdown to Dustin Simmons to make it 20-14 after a missed 2-point try.

Ludington responded on one play as Large lobbed a 52-yard touchdown to Kacynski as the game was tied at 20 with 6:48 to play in the third.

Slawinski answered with a 4-yard touchdown run and Swidorski added the conversion for a 28-20 lead, but Large scored from a yard out and the game was knotted at 28 late in the third.

“I think they wore us down a little bit,” Gunsell said. “Our big threes got wore out a little bit and it put pressure on our backers.”

Manistee followed with an 11-play drive that was capped with Slawinski firing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Swidorski.

“I was just looking for whoever was open,” Slawinski said.

On the 2-point try, Slawinski rolled to his right and found an open Dustin Simmons, just past the goal line.

“I just rocketed it in there,” Slawinski said. “I knew he was going to be standing there.”

Already out of timeouts, Ludington converted a pair of fourth downs and, after having a touchdown called back for pass interference, scored on the next play as Large hooked up with Trevor Wahr for an 18-yard score on third-and-goal with 40.5 seconds left.

That set up the crucial 2-point try.

Last year the Chippewas broke up a pass in the endzone.

This time Gancarz made sure the ball never had a chance by getting to Large and making him throw an incomplete pass.

“There were two guys shoulder to shoulder and I just kind of fit myself in between them, turned sideways, there was the quarterback and that’s all I remember,” Gancarz said.

“He’s done that a lot,” Kapolka said of Gancarz. “He’s got a knack. He’s a little guy, he finds creases and he’s got great closing speed.”

In the last two seasons, Manistee has beat Ludington twice by a total of three points.

“They’re haunting me, they’re haunting me — Gus has got me on 2-point conversions,” Gunsell said.

Manistee recovered the onside kick, took one knee, and claimed the Dad’s Trophy for a second straight year.

“It feels pretty good knowing it’s my senior year and the last time we’ll play Ludington,” Gancarz said. “We came through when it really counted.”

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