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Saline football coach Joe Palka expected to see a couple of familiar faces Friday night at Bedford.
Besides escaping with a 28-25 Southeastern Conference victory against the host Mules, the former Whitmer coach found himself and his son — Hornets starting quarterback Tyler — greeted by plenty of people who supported them only a year ago when they were instrumental in the Panthers reaching a Division I state semifinal appearance.
With nearly 50 friends and family on hand for the rain-soaked contest, the Palkas experienced their own homecoming affair.
"Coming back here and performing in front of friends and family, I think it was not only important for me but it was important for Tyler to play well," said Palka. "The biggest thing was for us to bounce back from a tough loss last week."
Rain made it challenging to hold on to the ball. The two teams combined for six turnovers before halftime.
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The Hornets (4-1, 2-1 SEC) ended up making the most plays down the stretch, including a late 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Saline's Gage Hammond that came right after Bedford had pulled to within three points .
Hammond's third score of the night gave the Hornets a 28-19 lead early in the fourth quarter.
"We beat ourselves pretty well tonight," Bedford coach Jeff Wood said.
"With that many turnovers and we gave up that kickoff, that was two huge keys to why we didn't win the game."
Turnovers produced plenty of momentum-altering plays that ultimately led to the Mules (3-2, 1-1) overcoming a 12-0 deficit and taking a 13-12 lead into halftime.
Saline produced the first points of the game by taking its first possession and marching down field with Kevin Gross capping an eight-play, 65-yard drive with a 20-yard TD run with 8 minutes, 30 seconds to play in the opening quarter.
The Hornets' next scoring possession came early in the second quarter and was set up by a Mules fumble in Hornets territory.
Saline recovered the loose ball at its own 28 and needed only three plays to make it 12-0. Palka, who completed 9 of 11 passes for 111 yards, delivered a strike to Hammond streaking straight through the Mules defense on his way to a 66-yard touchdown reception with 10:32 left in the second quarter.
Bedford didn't take long to respond to Saline's second score.
The Mules took the ensuing possession and marched 80 yards in eight plays with Brad Boss finishing the drive with a nifty 43-yard touchdown run. The Bedford quarterback broke free from five would-be tacklers near the line of scrimmage before finally finding daylight and turning the carry into a 40-yard dash to the end zone to make it 12-6 with 6:39 left in the first half.
Boss finished with 154 yards rushing on 26 carries and completed 2 of 7 passes for 23 yards.
Bedford took a one-point edge into halftime shortly after Palka coughed up the football deep in Hornets territory after being hit by Bedford linebacker Brandon Sunday with less than 30 seconds to play in the half.
Moments later, Boss fired a pass to Trent Santiago, who pulled in the throw for a 20-yard TD completion with 19 seconds left in the second quarter. Holden Tincher made good on the extra-point try to give the Mules a 13-12 lead.
Yet, the momentum the Mules carried into the break didn't carry over into the third quarter. The Hornets regained the lead with their first possession of the half. The Hornets started their first possession of the second half in Bedford territory after stopping Boss from running to a first down after he took a high snap on a fourth down.
The Hornets took over at the 24 and Gross scored on a 10-yard keeper on the second play of the drive to give Saline a 19-13 lead with 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
Hammond gave Saline a 22-13 lead when he booted a 37-yard field goal with six minutes left in the third quarter.
Boss cut the Hornets' lead to 22-19 when he scored on a 23-yard touchdown scamper with 9:16 left.
Then Hammond came right back and made it 28-19 by returning the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a score with 9:05 remaining.
Bedford's Cory Scheuer nearly duplicated Hammond's kickoff return when he took the ensuing kickoff and returned it 89 yards before he was tackled at the Hornets' 9 yard line. Boss made it 28-25 when he scored on a nine-yard run around left end with 8:43 to play.
Saline's defense held up the rest of the way to deny Bedford a late comeback.
Contact Donald Emmons at: email@example.com, 419-724-6302 or on Twitter @DemmonsBlade.