TUSCOLA — Luke Sluder wasn't on the field last year when Tuscola got unexpectedly bounced in the Class 1A quarterfinals by Hardin Calhoun.
But he sure wasn't going to let history repeat itself Saturday. This time he had control over the outcome — and he took it.
Tuscola's junior quarterback threw for three touchdowns and rushed for two in the Warriors' 48-20 Class 1A quarterfinal win against Carrollton (10-2).
“That kind of was in my mind, the loss last year, but this is a whole different team and I knew this team could do it and we did it," Sluder said.
“The last two years we've come up short and I'm just glad, with all the fans ... I'm just glad we can make it (to the semis)."
Sluder threw for 215 yards and rushed for 165 yards for the Warriors (12-0), who racked up 502 yards of total offense to move on to the semifinals for the first time since 2014. Tuscola will travel to Athens at 2 p.m. Saturday with a trip to the state finals in DeKalb on the line.
On the receiving end of all three touchdown passes was senior Dalton Hoel — a freshman on the last semifinal team.
Hoel started the scoring with a four-yard touchdown run and added receiving touchdowns of 1, 28 and 41 yards on his way to a five-catch, 103-yard day.
Now, he has a chance to avenge the missed opportunities of the previous few seasons.
“It's incredible," Hoel said. "As a senior you kind of look back on everything and realize what you haven't accomplished. We've always wanted to take it one game at a time and we're really excited to give it a shot next week."
After last season's letdown, the semifinals are a welcomed place for Tuscola coach Andy Romine.
“Let's face it, last year's loss in the quarterfinals was crushing. It was crushing," he said. "You hurt for our kids and you hurt for those seniors. But all the kids who have been here the last couple years who had got bounced a little earlier than we had hoped, they're still a huge part of this and they're part of the process to build it back and get a shot to play in another semifinal game. We're really looking forward to the opportunity."
The Warriors overcame three turnovers — a pair of fumbles and an interception by Carrollton's Nathan Walker in the third quarter.
Despite the offensive miscues, the Warriors' defense held the Hawks in check.
But, at the onset, it didn't look like it.
Carrollton marched down the field on its opening possession for a nine-play, 68-yard drive capped by a four-yard TD pass from Hunter Flowers to Walker.
That was as much as the Hawks mustered until a touchdown early in the third quarter and a touchdown against Tuscola's reserves in the fourth.
The time in between was dominated by the Warriors' defense, specifically their front seven. Tuscola held Carrollton to 271 yards of offense.
Defensive lineman Brayden VonLanken (5 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss), Hunter Woodard (4 tackles, 2tackles for losses) and Kevin Miller (9 tackles, 2 tackles for losses) put pressure on Hunter Flowers from the beginning of the game and never relented.
“Our linemen and linebackers did an incredible job of making them throw the ball quick," Hoel said. "They had a few deep throws but none of them were really completed. The quarterback was under pressure all day, he had to flush out, scramble or get sacked."
That pressure helped make things easier on the linebackers and secondary.
“With Brown County last game (last week), they ran a lot of Wing-T and we knew it was going to be a big adjustment, but we've done it all year," said junior linebacker Will Little, who had eight tackles, one tackle for a loss and an interception. "We had to come out and get under them and do what we needed to do."
Romine said the Tuscola defense did a good job overcoming the offense's turnovers.
"How you respond to momentum swings against you, and adversity, it says a lot about as a player and football program and our kids did a good job responding to it," Romine said.
As a result of the defense, the Warriors' offense went to work with prime field position.
"We lost the field position battle several times there early in the game and it seemed like it slipped away — the momentum and things just slipped away," Carrollton coach Nick Flowers said.
Firing on all cylinders
For as dominant as the Sluder to Hoel combination was, it wasn't the only aspect of the Tuscola offense that was clicking.
Haden Cothron had five receptions for 63 yards and the run game, anchored by Andrew Erickson, kept the Hawks honest.
Erickson rushed 13 times for 74 yards and Noah Pierce rushed five times for 52 yards.
That opened the field.
“Our run game is pretty good, quite honestly, Dalton Hoel is not Dalton Hoel if we don't force people into the box like that," Romine said.
"When you have to commit seven to the box, he's going to get single covered and when he gets single covered, he's going to beat a lot of people."
Making quick work
The Tuscola defense forced seven three-and-outs against the Carrollton offense.
The Hawks ran just 18 plays in the second quarter and threw back-to-back interceptions in the third, one of which was returned for a 33-yard touchdown by Cade Kresin.
“This is one of our better (defensive performances) all year," Little said. "Obviously we wanted to hold them to no scores, but with a good team like this it was going to happen deep in the playoffs."
Don't take it for granted
Since 2009, this is the fourth semifinal appearance for the Warriors and the second in four years.
But Romine and the Warriors aren't taking anything for granted.
“A lot of programs haven't been there twice in their history," Romine said. "It's hard to get to. It's hard to win quarterfinal games and it's hard to win playoff games in general. It takes a lot of focus and a lot of work. It's a long season and it's a grind. It takes a ton of focus from kids. We're just really proud of our kids to have an opportunity to keep playing."