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The Whitmer Panthers seemingly had all the momentum in the world in the closing minutes of Friday night's City League football showdown against visiting St. Francis de Sales in a classic battle of state-ranked teams.
Whitmer (5-1, 2-1 CL), ranked ninth in Division I, had driven 58 yards to the Knights' 13 with 4:00 remaining.
But that's where the momentum was stymied by a St. Francis defense that rose to the occasion and hung on for a 21-17 victory before a crowd of more than 9,000.
Senior receiver/cornerback Scott Loy added to his first-half offensive heroics by delivering the game's biggest defensive play. Loy dived in front of a fourth-and-12 pass from Whitmer quarterback Joe Missler to Randall Kennedy, breaking up the catch and preserving his team's unbeaten record with 1:56 to play.
"Missler's a great quarterback, but I came in from the side, so he probably didn't see me," Loy said of his deflection. "When I saw him roll out with no one blocking, I figured he was passing it."
"I felt like our defense was going to come up big. We've had this mind-set the whole year that we should not lose a game, and we just kept that going."
With Whitmer out of timeouts, the Knights (6-0, 3-0), ranked fifth in D-II, killed the clock.
"We hung in there on defense and made a couple big plays there at the end," Knights coach Dick Cromwell said. "[Loy] is a great athlete on both sides of the ball and on punt returns and covering punts. He's just a big-play type of person, and he made them again."
"That was tough because we had put drives together in the second half," Whitmer coach Joe Palka said. "That's our MO - we always come in and score late to win games.
"But it's not going to happen 100 percent of the time, and it didn't happen tonight. We came up a little bit short."
St. Francis dominated play for much of the first half and led 14-7 at the break.
Both of St. Francis' first-half scores came on passes from quarterback Tyler Johnston to Loy (four catches, 112 yards).
The first was a 63-yard bomb down the right sideline that found Loy in stride past Panther DB Mark Meyers with 22.8 seconds left in the first quarter.
Then, 4:54 before halftime, on the next play after hitting Loy over the middle for 24 yards, Johnston again went to his agile, 6-3, 182-pound favorite target in the right side of the end zone, and the Knights led 14-0.
Whitmer answered with a 15-play, 80-yard TD drive to pull within seven 31.7 seconds before halftime.
Pivotal on the march was Missler's clutch 14-yard completion to Mike Pfaff on a fourth-and-7 from the Knights' 29.
Three Missler runs covered the next 14 yards, setting the stage for Micah Merritt's 14th TD of the season on a one-yard plunge.
The only third-quarter points came on a 42-yard field goal from Austin Sweeney with 56.5 seconds left. But it was another kick that Sweeney made that might have hindered Whitmer's chances as time wound down.
After Knight tailback Lee Lukasik (15 carries, 56 yards) capped a quick, five-play, 80-yard march with a 12-yard TD run on an option pitch to the right, Missler (24 carries, 151 yards) also needed just five plays to respond.
He closed a 63-yard drive with a 32-yard scoring run with 8:54 to play.
Down 21-16 at that point, Palka opted to have Sweeney kick the point instead of attempting a two-point conversion to pull within a field goal's range of a tie.
"I take responsibility for that," Palka said. "At the time, we just felt 'Hey, let's just kick it.' We felt strong enough offensively that we were going to get another drive, come down and score.
"I can certainly second-guess that, but I felt confident enough in our offense to kick it and just keep going."
Whitmer topped the Knights 376-292 in total offense. Johnston was 6-of-13 passing for 171 yards, and Missler was 8-of-20 for 89 with two interceptions.
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