The players learned of their first-round matchup with Romulus that night, and it was the only Division 3 playoff game that mattered to them at the time. Coach Brad Bush quietly looked further down the bracket.
“You know who the best team in the state is, right?” he asked the lone reporter in the room as the final few players trickled out. “It’s Orchard Lake St. Mary‘s. I tell you what, they’re real good.”
Four weeks later, Bush watched his Bulldogs knock off previously-unbeaten Coldwater, 35-7, at Jackson High School a day after the game was postponed by heavy snow. Most people expected a closer semifinal, but Chelsea dominated from the start.
Shortly after celebrating, the 19-year Chelsea coach began preparing for his program’s first state championship appearance against none other than the team he talked-up most on Selection Sunday.
“I’ve watched them play the last two weeks, and I still think they’re the best team in the state,” Bush said again Sunday. “They’ve won six titles, they have great talent. They’re by far one of the best we’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Bush hasn’t made it a point to refer to his team as the underdog during the week leading up to Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. kickoff, but he hasn’t sugarcoated it either. After all, it’s no secret that St. Mary’s has been a dominant program for more than a decade.
The Eaglets (11-1) are the Division 3 defending champions. They’ve reached the final in 11 of their last 17 seasons, winning four of them, and are considered by many to be the favorite again this year.
That being said, Chelsea has proven it deserves its spot in the championship game. After beating up on Romulus and Trenton by a combined score of 58-22 in the districts, the Bulldogs beat Allen Park, 35-12, to earn their first regional title.
Sunday’s beatdown of the Cardinals was the second straight game in which Chelsea took an early lead and didn’t look back. By the fourth quarter, the reserves were in and gaining valuable playoff experience.
“The last two weeks we’ve had the running clock in the quarter and semifinals, so we’re pretty good too,” Bush said. “Our guys know the challenge is there and they know how athletic (St. Mary’s is), but I’m not going to sell us short either, that somehow we have to do something above us to play with them.”
Saturday’s final will feature a pair of shutdown defenses, and two offensive units that do a good job mixing run and pass. Chelsea has been known to lean more heavily on its pass game, while the Eaglets use more of a power run scheme to wear down opposing defenses.
Preparation for the indoor final will be slightly different after playing all season outdoors. Chelsea will try to get used to being inside by practicing this week at Eastern Michigan’s indoor facility and the Legacy Center in Brighton.
Bush said the last week of practice is bittersweet, but the team’s focus remains on going out on a strong note, making school history in the process.
“Every week we talk about our schedule and now it’s six days until we collect equipment,” Bush said. “Fourteen straight games is a long season, we’ve been at it as a team for almost six months. I love being around these guys, but I know the finish line is near and you just want to finish the best you can.”