By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
GRAYLING – For the Grayling Vikings, it was Just-in time.
Propelled by senior quarterback Justin Nicholas, Grayling pulled out victories the last two weeks to secure an eighth MHSAA football playoff berth in the last nine years.
All the first-year starter at quarterback did was complete a staggering 66 of 120 passes for 995 yards and 15 touchdowns over the final eight quarters of the regular season to keep the 6-3 Vikings alive. Grayling travels to 8-1 Reed City tonight for a first-round Division 5 playoff game.
“We knew he had a golden arm,” Grayling coach Tim Sanchez said of Nicholas. “He just needed some reps, some time behind center. For quarterbacks, that first season can be tough. It doesn’t always come easy.
“But,” he added, “Justin’s made it look that way.”
In a wild 58-46 comeback win over Benzie Central in Week 8, Nicholas nearly set several MHSAA records by finishing 39 of 72 for 623 yards and eight scores. The 623 yards? Second to Omar Salih of Detroit Cesar Chavez Academy (674 yards in 2013). His 72 attempts? Second to Grayling’s Jimmy Osga (74 in 2008). His 39 completions? Two off the mark held by Osga, Jenison’s Steve Brander and Detroit Central’s Robert Hunt. The eight touchdowns? Second to Salih (nine in 2013).
It all came as a shock to Nicholas, who was more worried about a win than his stats that night. The Vikings trailed Benzie 46-30 after three quarters.
It was his older brother Darin, who was listening to the game on radio while watching from the stands, who alerted him afterwards.
“It’s still kind of surreal - 623 yards, that’s like video game stats,” Nicholas said. “When I came off the field, my brother said to me, ‘How does it feel to be in the record books?’ I kind of looked at him, not fully aware of what he was talking about. Then he said, ‘You just passed for more than 600 yards.’ I said, ‘C’mon, quit messing with me.’”
He wasn’t messing.
This past Friday, needing that all-important sixth win, Nicholas responded by completing 27 of 48 passes for 372 yards and seven more touchdowns in a 50-33 road triumph over Kalkaska.
“It was either win or go home,” Nicholas said. “We needed those last two games (to qualify), and I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
Grayling started the season 4-0, then lost three in a row to playoff-bound Boyne City (9-0), Traverse City St. Francis (8-1) and Elk Rapids (7-2). In the Week 6 loss to St. Francis, the 6-foot, 230-pound Nicholas suffered a severe ankle sprain during the first half that ended his night. In addition, his go-to receiver, Nick Hunter, broke his right arm in the contest. Up to that point in the season, the junior receiver had hauled in more than 40 passes for close to 600 yards and six touchdowns.
The following Monday, Hunter’s older brother, Chris, another top receiver, started experiencing some pain. He confided in Nicholas, one of his best friends.
“Justin had an appendix scare earlier in the season, just before the Boyne game, and I was telling him my symptoms,” Hunter recalled. “He said, ‘Dude, that’s not good.’ I was like, ‘Nah, it’s probably just cramps.’”
Soon, Hunter said he could barely move. He ended up in the emergency room and had surgery the following morning to have his appendix removed.
Just like that, the spread-oriented Vikings had a quarterback with a bum ankle and were minus their two leading receivers.
But Nicholas did not intend to sit, even though he knew rest would be best.
“I wasn’t going to let my team down,” he said. “If I’m capable of playing, I’m going to play.”
That’s what he told Sanchez at the Sunday film session following the St. Francis loss.
“I said, ‘I don’t know about that,’” Sanchez said. “(His ankle) looked bad. In fact, I thought he broke it at first. But, he said, ‘Nope, I’m playing.’ It was literally a game-time decision.”
Nicholas did not practice all week and with personnel changes at the receiving positions the Vikings struggled in a homecoming loss to Elk Rapids.
“The chemistry was not there,” Sanchez said.
Grayling also missed Nicholas’s ability to run the ball. He had rushed for nearly 400 yards and 11 touchdowns prior to the injury. That put even more emphasis on the passing game.
The backup quarterback, Logan Joseph, became Nicholas’s No. 1 target. In the last three games of the regular season, Joseph caught 34 passes for nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns.
Still, the Vikings were on the verge of a fourth consecutive loss in Week 8 when Benzie Central had them on the ropes.
“We were down two scores starting the fourth quarter,” Sanchez said. “A lot of kids/adults put their heads down when adversity hits. But Justin wasn’t done. He led us to four straight touchdowns to keep us alive. That was huge. He carried us.”
Chris Hunter was watching it play out from the sidelines. He sensed the urgency in the fourth quarter when the situation appeared dire.
“I remember looking at Justin and saying, ‘Dude, we’ve got three losses already. This is the season,’’ Hunter said. “He said, ‘I can do it. We’re going to win this game. And he went out and did it.’”
Two weeks after his surgery, Chris Hunter returned to action in the regular season finale at Kalkaska. He caught three passes for 67 yards and three touchdowns. The Vikings were back in the playoffs.
“When we won at Kingsford (in last year’s playoffs), that was hands down the most memorable game of our careers,”’ Hunter said. “We wanted another chance to do it again, make another little playoff run.”
For Nicholas, it was icing on the cake. This is his third year on varsity. Although he started at quarterback as a freshman on the JV team, the Vikings were set at that position with Cam Summers, a three-year starter, who earned all-state honors and played in the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association All-Star game last summer.
Nicholas found other ways to contribute. He played running back, linebacker, safety, defensive end.
“He was our best defensive lineman last year,” Sanchez said. “We played him there this year until he got hurt. He’s a tough, smart kid.”
Concordia University offered him a scholarship to play defensive end after he camped there this summer.
But with Summers graduating, Nicholas slid into the quarterback role and assumed a leadership position, something he had dreamed about since he was a ball boy in elementary school.
“Justin was behind a very good player (Summers), but he never complained,” Sanchez said. “He understood Cam was the guy. So he said, ‘Where else can I play? Where else can I help the team’?
“With Cam gone, Justin seized the opportunity this year.”
Through nine games, Nicholas is 216 of 379 for 2,965 yards and 28 touchdowns.
“I knew he had it in him, but I’d be lying if I told you I knew he would pass for 3,000 yards and almost 30 touchdowns,” Sanchez said. “It would be unfair to expect that from somebody.”
Unless you’re Justin Nicholas.
“It’s kind of our thing at Grayling,” Nicholas said. “We’ll throw the ball until you make us stop.”
Nicholas can rattle off the names of all the Grayling quarterbacks that preceded him – several are in the MHSAA record book.
“I thought those guys were gods,” the 17-year-old said. “I thought, I can’t wait to be there one day and get my chance.”
When it came, he was ready.
“He’s a great kid, a great teammate,” Hunter said. “He’s had a terrific year, maybe one of the top-five years in Michigan.”
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grayling quarterback Justin Nicholas surveys his options during a Week 1 win over Roscommon. (Middle) Nicholas prepares to run against Kalkaska last week. (Below) Nicholas unloads a pass during the Week 3 victory over Kingsley. (Photos courtesy of the Grayling football program.)