Football: John Stark competes hard, but falls to Plymouth in first playoff appearance since 2018

John Stark running back Donnie White (20) looks to get around Plymouth’s defensive line, while quarterback Blake Sutkus (7) blocks during a Division II football quarterfinal at Plymouth Regional High School on Saturday. The No. 7 Generals made their first playoff appearance since 2018, but fell to No. 2 Plymouth, 28-8.

John Stark running back Donnie White (20) looks to get around Plymouth’s defensive line, while quarterback Blake Sutkus (7) blocks during a Division II football quarterfinal at Plymouth Regional High School on Saturday. The No. 7 Generals made their first playoff appearance since 2018, but fell to No. 2 Plymouth, 28-8. JOSHUA SPAULDING / Salmon Press

John Stark linebacker Joey Dykstra tackles Plymouth running back Ben Valenti (23) during a Division II football quarterfinal at Plymouth Regional High School on Saturday. No. 7 John Stark made its first playoff appearance since 2018, but fell to No. 2 Plymouth, 28-8.

John Stark linebacker Joey Dykstra tackles Plymouth running back Ben Valenti (23) during a Division II football quarterfinal at Plymouth Regional High School on Saturday. No. 7 John Stark made its first playoff appearance since 2018, but fell to No. 2 Plymouth, 28-8. JOSHUA SPAULDING / Salmon Press

By DAN ATTORRI

Monitor staff

Published: 11-04-2023 10:36 PM

PLYMOUTH – The John Stark seniors remember walking off the field winless after their final game as freshmen. Four years later, they’re walking off the field for the final time in the playoffs.

The No. 7 John Stark Generals (5-4) fought for every inch on every down, every play in the program’s first postseason appearance since 2018. They made things difficult for the perennially powerful Bobcats, but No. 2 Plymouth (9-1) ultimately won more battles in the trenches in a 28-8 win in the Division II football quarterfinals on Saturday at Plymouth Regional High School.

Both programs like to pound the ball, so both teams knew to expect a lot of physical battles along the line in the ground game.

“Plymouth is a great team. Our kids knew going into the game that they’d have their hands full up front, but I’m very proud of them,” John Stark head coach Ray Kerhsaw said.

The Bobcats ground game wore down the Generals with time consuming drives that led to touchdowns from Ben Valenti (185 yards on 31 carries) in the first quarter (from 4 yards out) and second quarter (from the 2), and some powerful runs from Robbie Thorne (73 yards on 15 carries) to give Plymouth a 14-0 lead heading into halftime.

Thorne punched in another touchdown from the 1 yard line with seven seconds left in the third quarter to give Plymouth a 21-0 lead.

The Bobcats outgained the Generals 323-17 on the ground and had 19 first downs, compared to John Stark’s six.

Stark didn’t pick up a first down until there was less than five minutes remaining in the first half.

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The Generals have improved steadily since going 0-5 in 2020, finishing 1-8 in 2021 (Kershaw’s first year as head coach) and 4-5 last year. On Saturday, nobody demonstrated that growth better than Blake Sutkus.

With John Stark’s running game getting beaten back by the Plymouth defense (which had eight tackles for loss and a sack), the run-heavy Generals turned to Sutkus, a senior quarterback, who lit up the Bobcats with 10-for-14 passing and 142 yards, all of those passes in the second half. 

“When we played the spread (earlier in the season), Blake struggled a little bit, so we wanted to keep working with him so he felt more comfortable,” Kershaw said. “You could see how progressed throughout the (season). It was huge.”

Sutkus hit senior captain Byron Parrish with a 42-yard pass (he finished the game with four catches for 67 yards) to get the ball to the 8 and connected with another senior captain, Deltyn Williams, for 7 more yards to bring the ball to the 1. 

The Generals ran three plays on the ground, none of them breaking the plane of the end zone, to turn the ball over on downs at the 1. But John Stark tackled Plymouth’s Tristan Patridge (49 yards on five carries) for a loss on the first play that followed, giving the Generals a safety to make it 21-2 with 9:25 left in the third quarter.

A couple of drives later, Sutkus made a 38 yard connection to junior Joey Dykstra, setting up a 10-yard scoring pass to senior Donnie White (three catches for 20 yards), making it 21-8 with 2:12 to play.

But Patridge had a big run for a first down and Plymouth quarterback Luke Diamond   (4-for-4, 65 passing yards) had a long pass for another, and Patridge scored a 2 yard TD with 1:07 left to make it 28-8

Cooper Legacy intercepted a Sutkus throw on Stark’s final play and Diamond took a knee to run out the clock.

The Generals had a good game from Dykstra, who was team’s leading rusher (25 yards on four carries), contributed to the passing game (1-for-6, 8 yard pass to Parrish, interception), had two tackles for loss, and was one of several General defenders who were in on the safety.

Plymouth had good games defensively from Jaxon Rineer (interception, two tackles for loss, plus a pair of catches for 20 yards), Zack Carter (three tackles for loss) and Emmit Nossaman (tackle for loss, sack).

“I knew that we were going to fight hard,” Sutkus said. “(The seniors) have been waiting for (our) chance in the playoffs for a long time. We had a tough three years, but this year we wanted a playoff run. Unfortunately we fell short today, but I’m proud of the way we played.”

The reason for the improvement is simple. 

“Just practice,” Sutkus said. “We’ve been playing with each other for a long time.”

The Generals not only competed with one of D-II’s best, but they adapted as the game went along, showing the Bobcats all kinds of different looks on offense, the kinds of schemes that Stark wouldn’t have been able to execute even just a couple of months ago.

“Our kids fought hard,” Kershaw said. “They played hard through the whole entire game and I’m extremely proud of them. … They’re starting to get more comfortable with the game. We’re heading in the right direction. I couldn’t be more proud.”