September 04, 2013 - By Joe St. Henry
Special to The Review
Lake Orion overcame the best shots of both Mother Nature and Oxford last weekend to win its 2013 varsity football season opener, 35-30.
Everyone knew the Dragons' speed and quick-strike capabilities would be pitted against the Wildcats' ball-control running attack designed to keep Lake Orion's offense on the sideline.
Oxford's strategy worked during the first half of the game. The Wildcats dominated time of possession, with their offense on the field for 18 of the game's first 24 minutes.
The Wildcats scored the first points of the game after a 19-play drive, capped by a short touchdown run that gave Oxford a 7-0 lead in the second quarter. The Dragons responded, however, mounting their own 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive, with senior slot back Chris Leigh scoring from 14 yards out to tie the game with a little more than two minutes left before halftime.
But the Wildcats started their next possession at their own 40-yard-line and scored with only 18 seconds left when quarterback Glacier Wallington scrambled and found a receiver alone for a 30-yard touchdown pass, giving the home team a 14-7 lead at the break.
"We did a nice job slowing down their running game, but their quarterback made some plays," said Lake Orion coach Chris Bell.
Ominous storm clouds clustered to the north as Lake Orion opened the second half by engineering an eight-play scoring drive. Senior Connor Grant threw his first touchdown pass of the season - a 41-yard strike to senior Zak Arnold to knot the game at 14 apiece.
Then Mother Nature took over, with lightning and rain forcing both teams into their locker rooms and fans scrambling for cover with 8:54 left in the third quarter. The storm did not let up and the game was suspended until Saturday afternoon.
"Over the years we've had a few games postponed because of the weather," Bell said. "It's unfortunate, but no big deal. You just have to keep the kids focused. It impacts both teams."
The Dragons and Wildcats put on a very exciting final 21 minutes of football under clear skies the next day.
Oxford took possession at its 35-yard line and again moved the ball down the field, but the drive stalled at the Lake Orion five yard line. The Wildcats decided to kick a field goal, which put them up 17-14. On the next play, lightning struck again – this time with Lake Orion senior Corey Ester taking the ensuing kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown, giving the Dragons a 21-17 lead.
The kickoff return came on a fake in which Ester turned his back to the oncoming Wildcats and faked a handoff. As the Oxford defense fell for the fake along the right sideline, Ester was able to scamper down the left sideline for the score.
Lake Orion's defense stopped Oxford on its next possession and the offense moved the ball again, with senior running back Dominick Giovinazzo scoring from 11 yards out. The touchdown gave Lake Orion a 28-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.
"That sequence of plays was the key to the game – holding them to a field goal, the kickoff return, a big sack to stop them on the next drive and then scoring again," Bell said.
Oxford came back with its own touchdown drive to cut the gap to 28-25 with six minutes remaining. Then the Wildcats' seemed to be taking control when they forced the Dragons into a third-down and long situation deep in their own territory. But Grant found Leigh cutting across the middle for a gain of 50 yards, down to Oxford's 33-yard line. Four plays later, he scored on a 10-yard run, giving the Dragons a ten-point lead, 35-25, with 2:27 to play.
Undaunted, the Wildcats put together an 11-play, 64-yard drive in less than two minutes, with their quarterback scampering in for the score to cut Lake Orion's lead to five points. Oxford missed the two-point conversion, but recovered an onside kick with 48 seconds left. The Dragons closed out the exciting game, however, by sacking Wallington and then intercepting a pass on the next play, before running out the clock.
Bell said the team's primary offensive weapons – Leigh, Arnold and Ester – all made big plays. Leigh finished with 69 yards rushing and two scores, Giovinazzo rushed for 57 yards/one touchdown and Grant passed for 112 yards/ one touchdown, plus started on defense. Lake Orion's offense was only on the field for 13 minutes the entire game, but gained 307 yards.
The head coach noted the strong play of the team's offensive lineman, three of whom were starting for the first time. "They did a really nice job," Bell said.
Defensively, the head coach said defensive back Brad Chisholm had a strong game, recording double-digit tackles. The team played eight new starters on defense and Bell said the unit played much better on Saturday – another factor in the victory.
"We knew we had to contain their quarterback better and our defense came up big in the second half," he said.
Overall, the head coach said it was a "fundamentally sound" victory, noting Lake Orion had zero turnovers and only three penalties.
"The weather postponement gave us a chance to look at game film Friday night and make some adjustments for Saturday," he said. "Our kids responded and it was a nice team win."
Lake Orion opens its home and league schedule this week against Troy Athens.