CRYSTAL FALLS - Forest Park went scoreless for nearly three quarters after grabbing an early 16-0 lead but held off L'Anse 16-9 to capture yet another Division 8 district football championship Friday.
The title - the Trojans' 10th in the past 11 seasons - was won with defensive stands as Forest Park protected its one-touchdown advantage.
"We had our backs against the wall for several possessions," said Forest Park Bill Santilli. "All in all, I have to give our defensive effort an A-plus."
Theresa Proudfit/The Daily News Photo
Forest Park’s Connor Kezerle picks off a pass next to L’Anse’s Jacob Ostermeyer in Friday’s Division 8 district final at Dick Mettlach Field.
Connor Kezerle's interception at the 5-yard-line stopped the Purple Hornets' final threat at the 4:29 mark of the fourth quarter. The Trojans were able to expire the clock from there, with quarterback Jeff Johnson gashing the L'Anse interior to key the clinching drive.
Up next for the Trojans (11-0) is the North Dickinson Nordics (8-2), with kick-off at 6 p.m. Friday at Crystal Falls.
Lee Graff carried the bulk of the load for Forest Park on a slick turf at Dick Mettlach Field, rushing for 142 yards and one TD against a big L'Anse squad.
Austin Snell's 20-yard scoring sprint followed by Johnson's conversion pass to Daniel Nocerini lifted the Trojans to a 16-0 cushion early in the second quarter. Yards came tougher after that.
"We came out with a different look on offense and before L'Anse could adjust we were able to establish a good ground game," Santilli said.
The Purple Hornets came to life just before halftime. Jimmy Veker flipped a jump pass from the halfback position to Jonny Magaraggia, who weaved 74 yards through the Trojans secondary to make it 16-6.
"We faltered," Santilli said. "Just one of those things."
A 33-yard field goal late in the third from U.P. Dream Team kicker Ryan LaBerge made it 16-9 and the nail-biter was on.
Snell's touchdown return on the ensuing kick-off was erased by penalty. The Purple Hornets soon threatened, driving to the Forest Park 33 before being stopped by the first of Kezerle's two interceptions.
L'Anse came back once more, getting a first down at the Trojans 22, only to see Kezerle again come through with a pick.
"I never took my eyes off the guy I was covering," Kezerle said. "I kept watching my guy, when his eyes lit up, I turned around and the ball was there and I caught it."
L'Anse quarterback LaBerge finished 6 for 17 for 103 yards, but was sacked five times.
"We tried to play power football and we did just enough," Santilli said. "This team is not always dominant, but we just seem to make plays when we need to."
Santilli credited L'Anse's effort and sportsmanship. "They had an excellent season and represent their program very well."
Forest Park's victory avenges a 34-28 loss to the Purple Hornets in the opening round of the 2012 tournament - the Trojans' earliest postseason exit since 2002.
Friday night's "A-plus" defensive effort was paced by Graff, seven tackles, one assist; Tomasik, four tackles, two assists; and Kezerle, three tackles, one assist. Adam Hilberg and Jeff Marchi had fumble recoveries. The sacks were registered by Hilberg, Nocerini, Billy Ragio, Connor Dalpra and Zach Aberly.
L'Anse 0 6 3 0 - 9
Forest Park 8 8 0 0 - 16
FP - Lee Graff 4 run (Graff run), 4:27.
FP - Austin Snell 20 run (Daniel Nocerini from Jeff Johnson), 8:49.
L - Jonny Magaraggia 74 pass from Jimmy Veker (pass failed), :32.
L - LaBerge 33 field goal, 4:57.
L'Anse, 138 yards (minus 38 rushing, 176 passing). Forest Park, 258 yards (247 rushing, 11 passing).
Rushing: L'Anse, 18-minus 38. Forest Park, 59-247 (Graff, 33-142; Snell, 8-54; Ray Tomasik, 7-38; Johnson, 11-13).
Passing: L'Anse, 7-19, 176 yds., 1 TD, 2 ints.; Forest Park (Johnson), 1-5, 11 yds.