Football Flashback - 2002: De La Salle upsets #1 Rochester Adams
"First and goal...at the Rochester Adams 6 yard line...30 seconds left in the game...down by 4...we need a touchdown to take the lead..."
This was running through the mind of every De La Salle football player, coach, and fan on a cold, blustery November night in 2002 at Rochester Adams High School. But this game wasn’t so much about this game as it was the journey to the game.
Going into the 2002 season, it would be an understatement to say the football program had been struggling the previous couple seasons. After going to the playoffs in 1999, De La Salle went a combined 5-13 in 2000 and 2001 in football. But 2002 was a new year, led by a new coach by the name of Paul Verska. Verska had been hired in January 2002 and his first job was to lead De La Salle football back to respectability. This was nothing new to Coach Verska. He had previously lifted six other schools back to respectability, so the challenge was seemingly no different than his previous stops. But this was different. He was going back to the league he had played in as a high school student at Harper Woods Notre Dame. Now he was going back to coach at his alma mater's archrival.
Changing the mindset and attitude of the football team was not going to be easy. The only thing these football players knew about on the JV and Varsity level was losing. Coach Verska and his football staff had to transform the team into believers. With the mantra of "One Heartbeat," Coach Verska slowly made every player on the team realize that together, they could defy the odds and compete against each team they went against throughout the season. The coaches gave the players the motivation and the belief it could happen. The players, especially the seniors, embraced the philosophy and as the season went on, the thought and the belief that this team could and would win grew.
There were many pivotal moments during the 2002 season, moments where the team could have folded and reverted back to their old ways. But they persevered. They persevered at Crestwood High School in Week 3 against Divine Child in a 21-14 win against the Falcons. The persevered in Week 6 at Notre Dame in a driving rainstorm in the first half, beating the Irish 7-0 and preserving Coach Verska's prefect record at Notre Dame Field. The Pilots persevered against Orchard Lake St. Mary's in Week 7, defeating the Eaglets 14-7 and giving De La Salle its first win over OLSM since 1949. De La Salle persevered Week 9 against Country Day in a torrential downpour, beating the Yellow Jackets 3-0 on Rob Miller's 37-yard field goal with 9 seconds left in the game. In essence, the 2002 De La Salle football team not only persevered against their opponents, but also against past demons and pitfalls.
The win against Country Day gave De La Salle the opportunity to prove its mettle against Rochester Adams, the #1 team in Division 2, in the MHSAA Playoffs. Rochester Adams was one of the favorites to win Division 2 in 2002. Their coach, Jim DeJaeger, went so far to say that if Adams did not win at least two games in the playoffs, he would resign as head coach. This was another "David vs. Goliath" matchup that the Pilots were so accustomed to during the 2002 season.
Offensively, the first half of the Rochester Adams game was a struggle with the Pilots gaining only 18 yards. Defensively, the team did its best to slow down the Rochester Adams attack that had averaged 31 points a game during the regular season. The Highlanders scored their only points of the first half late in the first quarter when Mike LePage ended a 62-yard drive with a 5-yard TD. The Pilots got on the board late in the second quarter when they recovered a fumbled Rochester Adams punt at the Highlander 8 yard line and converted it into 3 points when Rob Miller connected from 28 yards out, giving the halftime score of 7-3.
In the second half, it was the Pilots defense that rose to the occasion, like it had so many other times during the 2002 season. Rochester Adams came out on their first possession of the second half and drove 73 yards down to the DLS 3 yard line. But on 3rd and goal, the Highlanders were stuffed and had to settle for a Mike LePage 20 yard field goal. On their second possession of the half, Rochester Adams drove down to the Pilot 37, but was stopped on downs. After that stop, De La Salle turned the field position around and marched down to the Rochester Adams 10 yard line, thanks to 26 and 29 yard pass completions from Matt Lewis to Joe Konrad, but came away with no points as Rob Miller pushed a field goal attempt wide right. On their next possession, Rochester Adams went 3 and out, giving the Pilots the ball at the Highlanders 41-yard line. Again, the Pilots moved the ball, this time to the Rochester Adams 17-yard line where Rob Miller connected on a 35-yard field goal to pull the Pilots within 10-6 in the middle of the fourth quarter. After the field goal, Rochester Adams started the ensuing possession at their own 26-yard line, but the Pilots forced the Highlanders to punt from their 44-yard line with 3:42 left in the game. After receiving the Rochester Adams punt at the DLS 22-yard line, Joe Novak took it up to the DLS 29-yard line, setting up a drive to remember for many years to come.
After losing a yard on first down, on second and 11, Brad Sabo took the pitch from Matt Lewis and threw a half back option pass downfield to Joe Konrad for a 35-yard completion down to the Rochester Adams 37 yard line. From there, Joe Novak took over and carried the Pilots down to the Highlander 6 yard line on 6 successive running plays. After getting a first down at the Adams 6 yard line, Matt Lewis spiked the ball with 30 seconds left in the game, giving the Pilots a second and goal from the six. Second and goal...at the Rochester Adams 6 yard line...30 seconds left in the game...down by 4. The Pilots need a touchdown to take the lead and setting the stage for what was thought to be impossible.
On second down, Lewis took the snap, took one step back, and floated a pass to the corner of the end zone towards his favorite target, Joe Konrad. Konrad adjusted to the ball, fought off a Rochester Adams defender and caught the fluttering pass in the end zone, giving De La Salle their first lead of the game. After the successful extra point from Rob Miller, the Pilots led 13-10 with 24 seconds left in the game. A dam of emotion broke on the field, the sideline, and the stands. The Pilots were on the verge of upsetting the #1 team in Division 2. On the other side, Rochester Adams was stunned. This was not supposed to happen. This was supposed to be their year to break out. But 2002 was not the year for the Highlanders…it was the year of the Pilots.
The Highlanders got the ball back at their own 35-yard line, but it was academic. Four plays later, the De La Salle offense jubilantly took the field for every football coach’s favorite play – the victory kneel. The deed was done and an upset for the ages was in the books.In hindsight, the 2002 De La Salle football team set a precedent for every De La Salle football team to follow.
Since 2002, the De La Salle football team has accomplished feats which many fans previously dreamed of – four more playoff berths, two district titles, two regional titles, a Central Division championship, a Catholic League championship, two state finals appearances. It certainly set the path to put De La Salle as one of the top football programs in Michigan. It’s hard to image that during a single decade a football program can go from having its worst seasons to having some of its best. It’s a testament to all the coaches and players who have worked to put the De La Salle football program on the forefront. But it was a group of players who believed - believed in their coaches, teammates, themselves, and “One Heartbeat” to lay a foundation that still exists in the De La Salle football program.
“Second and goal…Touchdown Pilots!”
Respectability established. A new era of De La Salle football is born.