Coming into Friday night’s regular-season finale at Ypsilanti’s Shadford Field, Pioneer needed a win and some help to qualify for the MHSAA state playoffs.
Turns out, both happened.
Pioneer did its part with a 42-18 victory, improving to 5-4 on the season, the necessary record to be playoff eligible. Pioneer clinches its first winning regular season since 2015, the last time it qualified for the playoffs.
The computer did the rest, sending the Pioneers to the postseason where they will play at Woodhaven on Friday.
On Friday night, Pioneer head coach Bill Bellers said that making the playoffs would be “huge” for the program, both for this season and future ones.
“It’s a continued step in the right direction,” Bellers said. “It gives us another week of practice, where other schools are done and collecting equipment. The teams that make the playoffs year in and year out, it’s almost an extra season for them. That’s a chance for guys who are seniors to get another week of football, our juniors to get another week to improve, and maybe bring up some sophomores.”
Junior quarterback Conor Easthope led the way for the Pioneers against Ypsilanti, scoring four touchdowns on the night, with three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown.
“Conor was very courageous tonight,” Bellers said. “He took some shots and kept on going. He did everything we could ask of him. He made throws when we needed him to make throws and he made runs when we needed him to make runs. He’s that type of kid; that’s what the expectation is for him.”
Pioneer’s offense began its first drive of the game at the Ypsilanti 29-yard line after the Pioneers recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff. The drive looked stalled as two runs and a penalty left the offense facing a third-and-14. On the third down play, however, Easthope made a huge play, avoiding a blitz, escaping would-be tacklers, as he rolled left and picked up 18 yards on a scramble, giving Pioneer a first down inside the Grizzlies’ 20-yard line.
Five plays later, on fourth-and-goal, Easthope hit tight end Chris Holmes for a 2-yard touchdown, threading the ball in between two defenders. The extra point by Tierney Fraidenburg, who made all six extra points for the game, gave the Pioneers a 7-0 lead with 7:32 remaining in the first quarter.
Pioneer extended its lead midway through the second quarter. Pioneer took over once again in Ypsilanti territory after linebacker Owen Aldridge stopped a run in the backfield for a big loss on defense and a fumbled snap on the punt led to a turnover.
Pioneer was in the red zone three plays later, following two completions by Easthope and a quarterback keeper totaled 30 yards. Initially, Pioneer’s drive looked to be stopped, but the Grizzlies were flagged for roughing the passer on fourth down, which gave Pioneer a first-and-goal. Four plays later, on fourth-and-goal, Easthope faked a handoff to the right, and walked into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown. The 10 play, 48-yard scoring drive gave Pioneer a 14-0 lead with 7:30 remaining in the first half.
Ypsilanti’s offense responded with a 7 play, 68-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Atticus Carridine to receiver Trey McGee, cutting Pioneer’s lead to 14-6.
Pioneer, however, quickly restored its two-score lead with an 8 play, 55-yard scoring drive late in the first half. On third-and-12, Easthope absorbed a hit in the pocket, drifted a pass towards a wide-open Geffen Peterson-Sand, who made an incredible catch along the sideline, getting a foot down for a first down into Grizzlies’ territory.
Five plays later, Pioneer scored on another fourth down as Easthope delivered a perfectly-thrown slant into the end zone that was caught by receiver Ali Fisher for a 4-yard touchdown. Pioneer took a 21-6 lead into halftime.
Pioneer’s offense continued its domination on its first drive of the second half. Two completions to John Lamphere and Peterson-Sand, along with a 14-yard rush by running back Kenny Atkins got Pioneer deep into Ypsilanti territory. On the fourth play of the drive, Easthope threw deep for Peterson-Sand, who came down with the pass, shook a defender, and scored a 34-yard touchdown. Pioneer led 28-6 with 10:43 remaining in the third quarter.
Ypsilanti once again cut into the Pioneer lead. After Pioneer fumbled on its next drive, the Grizzlies scored two plays later on a 62-yard run up the right side by running back Ashton Jenson. Ypsilanti attempted a two-point conversion but a pass sailed incomplete. Pioneer led 28-12 with 7:39 remaining in the third quarter.
Ypsilanti threatened to make it a one-score game with about ten minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but Pioneer’s defense came up with a huge red zone stop. Defensive lineman Jordan Garrett sacked Carridine on third down, forcing fourth-and-19. On the ensuing fourth down, Carridine’s pass sailed out of the back of the end zone, forcing a turnover on downs.
Pioneer effectively put the game away with a 6 play, 66-yard scoring drive that ended with Atkins diving into the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown run. Pioneer led 35-12 with 6:12 remaining in the first quarter.
After Ypsilanti scored a touchdown with four minutes remaining on a 7-yard touchdown pass over the middle from Carridine to McGee, Pioneer added one more touchdown with 1:34 left in the game as junior running back Luke Rogers scored a 50-yard touchdown on a run up the middle.
7:32 – Pioneer – Chris Holmes 2 yard TD pass from Conor Easthope (Tierney Fraidenburg kick) – Pioneer 7, Ypsilanti 0
7:30 – Pioneer – Easthope 1 yard TD run (Fraidenburg kick) – Pioneer 14, Ypsilanti 0
4:30 – Ypsilanti – Trey McGee 2 yard TD pass from Atticus Carridine (PAT fails) – Pioneer 14, Ypsilanti 6
1:21 – Pioneer – Ali Fisher 4 yard TD pass from Easthope (Fraidenburg kick) – Pioneer 21, Ypsilanti 6
10:43 – Pioneer – Geffen Peterson-Sand 34 yard TD pass from Easthope (Fraidenburg kick) – Pioneer 28, Ypsilanti 6
7:39 – Ypsilanti – Ashton Jenson 62 yard TD run (2-pt. conversion fails) – Pioneer 28, Ypsilanti 12
6:12 – Pioneer – Kenny Atkins 5 yard TD run (Fraidenburg kick) – Pioneer 35, Ypsilanti 12
3:57 – Ypsilanti – McGee 7 yard TD pass from Carridine (2-pt. conversion fails) – Pioneer 35, Ypsilanti 18
1:34 – Pioneer – Luke Rogers 50 yard TD run (Fraidenburg kick) – Pioneer 42, Ypsilanti 18