Linden — There were challenges all season long.

 Due to injuries, illness and various other factors, the Linden varsity football team never had its complete starting lineup on the field together for any one game this fall. There was a time when the Eagles held a 1-2 record three weeks through the season, and yet the Eagles were able to win three straight games, finish the regular season with a 4-2 mark overall and earn a No. 1 seed in their Division 3 district entering the playoffs.

 Linden opened the playoffs with a bye and then defeated Bay City Western 24-13, earning a spot in a district championship game against the Kearsley Hornets on Friday. Considering the Eagles had already defeated the Hornets 43-22 earlier in the year, it appeared Linden were the favorites as they prepared to host Kearsley for the district championship contest.

 However, the Eagles ended up having to deal with another curveball, this one courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Two Linden starters became physically unable to play on Wednesday due to COVID-19 protocol, helping spark the Eagles 36-28 loss to the Kearsley Hornets Friday night at Linden High School. It was the second straight week a tri-county area football team’s chances of advancing in the playoffs was hurt by COVID-10 protocol. During the second week of the playoffs, the Fenton Tigers had many people out as well, helping push the Tigers to a 44-28 loss to North Farmington.

 “We had two days to prepare without our starting quarterback and our star wide receiver and defensive back,” Linden senior Griffin Michael said. “I thought Brandon (Green, who was forced to start at quarterback) stepped up and played a pretty good game. I’m proud of him.”

 “We haven’t had a game with everybody the whole year,” Linden varsity football coach Denny Hopkins said. “It’s been an up-and-down season, but overall it’s been a great year. I’m proud of them.”

 Early on it looked like the Eagles were going to get blown out. Linden was unable to muster much of an offense and the Hornets’ potent quarterback Braylon Silvas had Kearsley moving the ball effectively.

 Kearsley had the ball to start the game, and faced a fourth-and-3 play from the Linden 26 when Bryce Eliuk stopped Kearsley, forcing

a Silvas run to no gain. However, Linden was unable to move the ball and Kearsley started its second possession at the Linden 45. Seven plays later, Kearsley’s Jack Porter scored on a three-yard TD run. Kearsley led 6-0 with 2:59 left in the first quarter.

 The lead grew to 14-0 on Kearsley’s next possession. It started after the Eagles were forced to punt just four plays later, giving the Hornets the ball at the 33. Thirteen plays later, Kearsley was scoring on a five-yard TD pass to Jace Chapman. The two-point conversion was converted and the Hornets led 14-0 with 7:11 left in the first half.

 Before the half was over, the Hornets increased their lead with a 55-yard TD reception from Silvas to Tyler Czintyan, giving Kearsley a 20-0 lead with just 2:56 left in the first half. The Eagles’ chances of victory were looking bleak. But the ensuing kickoff gave the Eagles life when Garett Wagner returned it 79 yards to the Kearsley 10. Four plays later, Green completed a two-yard TD pass to Ethan Gomez. Carson Kelly kicked the extra-point and suddenly the Eagles trailed just 20-7 with 55.8 seconds left in the half. That was the halftime score.

 “It was just like how we practice it,” Wagner said about the kickoff return. “We had this blocking formation, and if there was a hole I was supposed to break as fast as I could through it and that’s what I did. I thought I was home free when I passed the kicker, but No. 14 (Kearsley’s Landon Watters) was faster than I thought (and got the tackle).”

 The Eagles started the second half receiving the kickoff and that’s when Wagner created some more fireworks, taking that kickoff 86 yards for Linden’s second TD of the contest. Kelly converted the extra-point and the Eagles trailed just 20-14, 12 seconds into the third quarter.

 “It was about the same thing (as the first big kickoff return) except one of my teammates after the first one told me if I went to the left I would be home free, so that’s what I did that time,” Wagner said. “Sure enough, I was home free.”

 The second Linden TD inspired the Eagles. On the following Kearsley possession, the Eagles’ defense forced a punt in three plays. Kearsley suffered a bad snap on the punt attempt and the Kearsley punter was swarmed by Linden players, preventing him from recovering the fumble. Instead, Michael was able to get the ball and run about 10 yards for the game-tying touchdown. Kelley followed with the extra-point, and suddenly off the strength of three big plays on special teams, the Eagles led 21-20 with 10:00 in the third quarter.

 “I knew we had to make a play and I saw the bad snap and ran over there,” Michael said. “My teammates were on him and they made some great plays, too. It was a free touchdown.

 “We knew we had to do something. Whatever we did in the first half, just wasn’t working. Garett Wagner stepped up as well and had both of those returns as well. They were unbelievable.”

 Kearsley retook the lead for good on its next possession. The Hornets drove 75 yards on 12 plays on a one-yard TD run by Silvas. During the drive, Kearsley converted a fourth-and-5 play with a 21-yard completion. Just two plays later, the Hornets scored the touchdown. Kearsley also converted the two-point conversion and the Hornets led 28-21.

 Linden moved the ball to the Kearsley 21 on its next possession, but a sack and an incomplete pass set up a fourth-and-17 at the Kearsley 28. Green completed a pass to Monte Keener on fourth down, but it only went for 12 yards, giving Kearsley the ball back.

Eight plays later, Kearsley took a 34-21 lead on a 14-yard TD reception to Chapman on a diving catch in the end zone. Kearsley converted the two-point play and the Hornets led 36-21 with 9:29 left in the fourth quarter.

 Just three plays later, Linden responded when Green scampered 50 yards for the Eagles’ first rushing TD. Kelly kicked the extra-point and Linden trailed just 36-28 with 9:11 still remaining in regulation.

 Linden had possession two times trailing by eight. The first was during an 11-play drive that started at Linden’s own 23. The Eagles moved the ball to the Kearsley 25 and faced a fourth-and-7 play. The Eagles tossed a lateral to Eliuk who threw the ball downfield to Seth Schuyler, but the ball fell incomplete.

 Linden’s defense forced Kearsley to punt four plays later, giving the Eagles one more chance, starting at their own 35 with 1:53 remaining. The Eagles moved the ball to the Kearsley 48, but a pass by Green was intercepted by Kearsley’s Michael Gibson with 47.6 seconds left in the game, effectively ending the contest.

“I don’t think we were on our ‘A’ game the first half. The whole half was rocky,” Wagner said. “I feel if we prepared a little bit better as a team, we would’ve been more successful in the first half.”

 “We didn’t play well in the first half, but we put it together and made it interesting (in the second half),” Hopkins said. “Our kickoff receive team and (Wagner) did well. We’ve struggled with it a little this year, but they stuck with it and Garett got it up the seam and took off a couple of times.”

 “We had some good plays and we had some bad plays, but I’m proud of our team,” Michael said.

 The Eagles finished the season with a 5-3 overall record.

 “I think I’m going to remember it as a great season,” Michael said. “I thought we were a really good team this year.”

Kearsley had 379 yards total offense on 67 plays. Without the blocked punt the offensive totals were 394 yards on 66 plays. Silvas was deadly, running for 131 yards while completing 15-of-23 passes for 232 yards. He did throw an interception, caught by Eliuk. Meanwhile, Linden had just 220 yards total offense on 51 plays. The Eagles were helped massively by the kickoff returns of 79 and 86 yards by Wagner and the blocked punt for a touchdown. The Eagles clearly dominated the special teams during the contest, but were inconsistent on offense and defense. Green finished with 68 rushing yards on 22 attempts. He also completed 13-of-27 passes for 123 yards. As the game progressed he looked more comfortable as the signal caller. Jawarski had five receptions for 61 yards while Gomez had four catches for 29 yards.

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