Despite battling through a series of injuries, the Climax-Scotts High football team remained a force on the gridiron during the 2012 campaign.
The Panthers enjoyed their eighth 9-0 regular season since 2003, claiming another SCAA league crown along the way, and then beat St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic 35-10 in the first round of the MHSAA Division 8 playoffs.
But the 10th-ranked Panthers met their match against a familiar foe on Saturday afternoon, as coach Kevin Langs' C-S squad dropped a 28-6 decision to defending D-8 state champ Mendon to finish the year at 10-1.
Mendon (11-0) -- ranked No. 1 again and owners of six state championships since 1999 -- will next take its 25-game winning streak into a home contest against Muskegon Catholic Central (8-3) next weekend in D-8 regional action.
Playing Saturday on a field named after their current and longtime coach, John Schwartz, the Hornets led 21-0 at halftime and 28-0 deep into the third quarter before C-S got on the scoreboard with 2:05 remaining in the third period via a 14-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Zach Nabozny to senior Kirk Gibson.
Following a missed point-after-TD kick, junior Josh Fleck then rebounded by helping the Panthers execute a successful onside kick that was recovered by junior Shawn Arnett on the Mendon 34-yard line.
But 10 plays later, despite a pass interference penalty by the Hornets that had kept the C-S drive alive, the Panthers were unable to find the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 4 early in the fourth quarter. And it also wasn't able to take advantage of a fumble recovery by C-S senior Garrett Bartholomew on its own 4-yard line late in the final period, as Mendon hung on to earn the triumph.
"I thought we played hard all the way to the end -- we competed to the end and gave Mendon a good game -- and my kids just never gave up. That, I'm very happy about,'' said C-S's Langs.
"Sure, they took advantage of the breaks we gave them, and we weren't always able to take advantage of the breaks they gave us -- breaks that always happen in a big game like this between two very good football teams. But in the end, it turned out that we just got too far behind early on ... and Mendon, being the good team they are, earned today's victory.
"It's a tough loss for us,'' added Langs, "but with only eight seniors on this year's team, and with all the injuries we had to fight through, I think all of our players and our assistant coaches did another great job this year. We had another very good season ... and I just hope we're back again next season swinging the sledgehammer and working hard at having another good year.''
Mendon led 7-0 after the first quarter on a 1-yard run by sophomore Elijah Klepper and a PAT by junior Robert Riley. C-S attempted a 39-yard field goal later in the quarter, but the kick sailed wide of the posts.
A 2-yard run by senior quarterback Nick Eberstein and a 12-yarder by senior back Tyler Harris, plus two more PATs, put the Hornets up by 21 at intermission.
Mendon's other TD came on a 6-yard run by Harris with 6:47 left in the third.
For the game, the speedy and hard-to-tackle Harris had 239 yards rushing on 29 carries, and Eberstein had 78 yards on nine tries.
"The bottom line in a game like this is you've got to block well and tackle well, and I thought our kids did a good job of that today. And I think our offensive and defensive lines outplayed their lines,'' said Mendon's Schwartz, whose squad plays in the St. Joe Valley (a league in which C-S was a member several years ago).
"It was a good game by both teams, a game featuring two very good programs ... and someday I would like to see us play again in the regular season. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened in a while, but maybe it will again someday.''
Gibson led the Panthers' rushing attack with 118 yards on 15 carries, with seniors Dakota Nowakowski and Alex Lodes adding 25 and 20 yards, respectively.
"Kirk is definitely an all-state football player. He's just one of the best in the state,'' Langs said.
Defensively, junior Sam Eshuis added an interception for C-S, Gibson had eight tackles, and senior Malachi Satterlee had seven.