Pioneer looked to be in a tight contest with top-seeded Brownstown Woodhaven after quarterback Conor Easthope delivered a perfectly thrown ball to senior receiver Geffen Peterson-Sand for a 15-yard touchdown pass to cut Woodhaven’s lead to one score with less than a minute remaining in the first half.
The Warriors turned the tables on Pioneer with a 24-yard touchdown pass on the final play from scrimmage in the first half. The one-score game that the Pioneers had worked hard to create was blown away in the chilly breeze.
From there, Pioneer never could close the gap, and its season came to an end with a 50-21 loss at Woodhaven in Friday’s playoff opener, finishing the season with a 5-5 record.
Woodhaven (10-0) advances to next week’s District final, where it will host Belleville. The Tigers crushed Saline on Saturday afternoon.
Despite the loss, the season was Pioneer’s first winning regular season and playoff appearance since 2015.
“It was plus and minus,” said Pioneer head coach Bill Bellers. “The positive was that it was our first winning season and playoff berth in four years. The seniors, who had never experienced a winning season, got a winning season and got to come to the playoffs.
“A couple games slipped away. We could’ve had a better record, but, at the end of the day, I feel that everything happens as it should and these guys had a taste of what it is and how to get here.”
Bellers said that Pioneer’s successes this season will lay the foundation for the future.
“These seniors have laid the foundation for our future,” Bellers said. “They have something to be proud of. I love my kids and we’re going to keep building this family. I am thankful to be able to call myself their coach.”
Pioneer was in position to score first after junior Matthew Wadlington returned the kickoff into Woodhaven territory. Three plays later, however, Easthope picked up a first down on a scramble, but was hit by a Woodhaven defender and fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Woodhaven.
The Woodhaven offense took over at its own 35-yard line following the fumble, and its option-offense gave Pioneer’s run defense fits the entire game. The Warriors needed just three plays to reach Pioneer’s red zone.
Pioneer’s defense had a chance to get a stop on fourth down, but Woodhaven running back Justin Evans scored a 10-yard touchdown run up the middle to give the Warriors the first points of the game. Nolan Belanger’s extra point gave Woodhaven a 7-0 lead with 6:41 remaining in the first quarter.
Pioneer was forced to punt on its next drive after a penalty wiped out a big play, and Woodhaven took over with decent field position. Pioneer’s defense came up with a key turnover as linebacker Jared Kinsherf fell on a dropped snap, recovering a fumble and ending a Woodhaven drive that had reached Pioneer territory.
Pioneer’s offense took advantage of the short field. On the third play of the drive, Easthope took the snap, cut left, ran across the entire length of the field, avoiding defenders, got the edge and scored a highlight-reel 35-yard touchdown on a keeper. Senior kicker Tierney Fraidenburg made her first of three extra points on the night to tie the score 7-7 in the final minute of the first quarter.
Woodhaven did not need long to reclaim its lead. One play after Pioneer’s defense was unable to come up with a run stop on third down, Woodhaven running back Clarence Corbett ran up a hole on the right side, bulled over a Pioneer defender, and ran up the sideline for a 49-yard touchdown run, giving the Warriors a 14-7 with 10:31 remaining in the first half.
Pioneer was forced to punt on its next drive, but was able to pin Woodhaven deep. On the third play of Woodhaven’s ensuing drive, it appeared that Pioneer had recovered a fumble at the Warriors’ 30-yard line. The referees, however, ruled the Woodhaven running back down, and the Warriors kept possession of the football.
Bellers said that he wasn’t sure if the ruling by the officials was correct.
“It was on the other side of the field, so it was hard for me to tell if we had actually recovered it before he was down,” Bellers said. “It’s hard to say. I was hoping it was ours, and I argued it. That’s their call, and I’m not going to change their minds, so it’s not worth getting caught up on one call.”
The call proved huge, as instead of Pioneer having the ball inside the Warriors’ 30-yard line, Corbett scored his second rushing touchdown of the game for Woodhaven on the drive. Evans scored a two-point conversion to increase Woodhaven’s lead to 22-7 with 4:42 remaining in the half.
Pioneer added a touchdown late in the first half as Woodhaven couldn’t stop the Easthope to Peterson-Sand combination that has been effective for the Pioneers the whole season. Pioneer moved the ball into Woodhaven territory with a 42-yard reception by Peterson-Sand over a Warrior defender on the sideline, converting a third down. After Easthope was sacked, bringing up a fourth-and-goal at the 15, Peterson-Sand caught a 15-yard touchdown pass in the middle of the end zone, cutting Woodhaven’s lead to 22-14 with 43 seconds remaining in the half.
Then, just as Pioneer looked to be going into halftime in a close battle with Woodhaven, Warriors’ quarterback Joshua Waters found receiver Ryan Szczpaniak in the end zone on a busted coverage for a 24-yard touchdown on the final play of scrimmage in the first half.
Bellers said that the game got away from Pioneer when they gave up the touchdown going into the half.
“We had them within a score, and then we gave up a cheap one, to be down by two,” Bellers said. “Once they got up by three [scores], the clock was our enemy. With the way their offense works, you can’t get that time, that clock is brutal.”
Woodhaven’s offense was able to control the clock and score often in the second half. Pioneer’s defense missed a key opportunity to get a needed stop on a rare pass play from the Woodhaven offense went for a 49-yard gain into Pioneer territory on third down. Three plays later, Corbett scored his third touchdown of the game on a 2-yard run up the middle. Pioneer trailed 36-14 with 8:33 left in the third quarter.
Pioneer’s offense responded quickly with a 4 play, 61-yard scoring drive. Easthope converted a third down on the third play, scrambling up the middle and breaking tackles for a 39-yard run into the Woodhaven red zone. Senior running back Kenny Atkins scored a 16-yard touchdown on the next play, trimming Woodhaven’s lead to 36-21 with 6:59 remaining in the third quarter.
That’s as close as Pioneer got in the second half, however, as Woodhaven was able to seal the game with two long scoring drives. Waters scored a 9-yard touchdown on a quarterback run with 11:17 remaining in the game, and Evans scored on a 7-yard run to increase Woodhaven’s lead to 50-21 with 4:37 remaining.
Woodhaven’s win was its first playoff victory since 2014.
6:41 – Woodhaven – Justin Evans 10 yard TD run (Nolan Belanger kick) – Woodhaven 7, Pioneer 0
0:14 – Pioneer – Conor Easthope 35 yard TD run (Tierney Fraidenburg kick) – Pioneer 7, Woodhaven 7
10:31 – Woodhaven – Clarence Corbett 49 yard TD run (Belanger kick) – Woodhaven 14, Pioneer 7
4:42 – Woodhaven – Corbett 5 yard TD run (2-pt. conversion succeeds) – Woodhaven 22, Pioneer 7
0:43 – Pioneer – Geffen Peterson-Sand 15 yard TD pass from Easthope (Fraidenburg kick) – Woodhaven 22, Pioneer 14
0:01 – Woodhaven – Ryan Szczpaniak 24 yard TD pass from Joshua Waters (Belanger kick) – Woodhaven 29, Pioneer 14
8:33 – Woodhaven – Corbett 2 yard TD run (Belanger kick) – Woodhaven 36, Pioneer 14
6:59 – Pioneer – Kenny Atkins 16 yard TD run (Fraidenburg kick) – Woodhaven 36, Pioneer 21
11:17 – Woodhaven – Waters 9 yard TD run (Belanger kick) – Woodhaven 43, Pioneer 21
4:37 – Woodhaven – Evans 7 yard TD run (Belanger kick) – Woodhaven 50, Pioneer 21