Merritt’s Late Rushing TD Gives La Salle Road Victory Over Moeller

Photo courtesy Tony Tribble, Cincinnati Enquirer

Photo courtesy Tony Tribble, Cincinnati Enquirer

By Tom Gamble, GCL South Commissioner

It was the first full Friday night of games this season in the Greater Catholic League South Division, believed by many high school football pundits to be the premier league in the state, region and even the country.  And the GCL South certainly did not disappoint, as St. Xavier used a defensive stand in the final minute and a pair of touchdown passes from Chase Wolf to Cameron Specht to keep its winning streak alive with a 14-6 victory over Elder at St. Xavier, while La Salle got a 1-yard TD run from senior quarterback Griffin Merritt with 21 seconds remaining to rally for a 28-24 win over Moeller at Lockland’s Roettger Stadium.

The win by St. Xavier (6-0, 3-0 GCL South) moves the Bombers – ranked No. 1 in The Enquirer’s Division I weekly area coaches’ poll, No. 2 in The Associated Press DI state poll and No. 22 nationally by MaxPreps – one win away from winning their first outright GCL South championship since 2012.  St. Xavier, which won a share of the GCL South title in 2014 and 2015, can wrap up the crown with a victory over La Salle in the annual King of North Bend Road game next Friday at St. Xavier Stadium.  The defending Division I state champion Bombers have now won 12 consecutive games.

It wasn’t easy to keep its streak alive against Elder (3-3, 0-1), which had more first downs, 20-12, and more total yards, 313-197, than the Bombers.  St. Xavier, in fact, needed a late defensive stand to remain unbeaten after Panthers’ junior quarterback Michael Bittner connected with Kyle Trischler (27 yards) and Danny Faillace (11) on pass plays to set up Elder at the St. Xavier 5-yard line with just over a minute left.  St. Xavier linebacker Thomas Kiessling came up with a big sack of Bittner on third down and, on Elder’s final play, Bittner hit Trischler with a pass across the middle only to see St. Xavier stop him at the 2 with 40 seconds remaining.

The loss was the third straight for Elder to the top three DI ranked teams in Ohio – No. 3 Lakewood St. Edward two weeks ago, No. 1 St. Ignatius last Saturday and St. Xavier.  St. Edward and St. Ignatius are both 5-0, with games scheduled to be played tonight.  Bittner had a solid game, going 13-of-28 passing for 167 yards after replacing starter Danny Nieman – who suffered a leg injury in the second quarter and did not return.  Nieman was 7-of-10 for 46 yards before leaving the game.

Elder’s defense also played well, limiting St. Xavier to just 48 yards rushing on 27 attempts, an average of 1.8 yards per carry, in holding St. Xavier to its fewest points in a game this season.  But Wolf, who wound up 17-of-29 passing for 149 yards and two TD strikes to Specht, who caught seven passes for 45 yards, gave coach Steve Specht’s team all the offense it needed to emerge victorious.  Wolf’s 8-yard scoring pass to Specht, who lunged the ball across the goal line in the third quarter, put the Bombers ahead by eight points.  Wolf has now thrown 12 TD passes with just one interception.

Both La Salle and Moeller were looking to rebound after losses last Friday, and for 47-plus minutes it looked as though Moeller (3-2, 0-2) might earn its first GCL South win.  The Crusaders, in a game that was tied twice and had five lead changes, took the lead on a 25-yard scoring pass from Mitch McKenzie to Jack McCracken, their second TD connection of the game, with 9:22 left.  That, however, was before La Salle mounted a late drive that culminated with the game-winner from Merritt – who also threw a pair of TD passes for La Salle (4-1, 1-0), which had its 15-game winning streak snapped with a home loss to unbeaten Winton Woods, 18-15, last Friday.

La Salle, No. 3 in The Enquirer’s Division II area coaches’ poll, No. 5 in the AP state rankings and the defending GCL South champion, travels to St. Xavier next Friday.  The Lancers defeated St. Xavier, 17-14, last season.  Moeller travels to Elder next Friday in its final GCL South game in what is the first of four difficult road tests to close the regular season.  After Elder, Moeller travels to Northeast Ohio in consecutive weeks to face St. Ignatius (5-0) and St. Edward (5-0), before returning to Cincinnati oppose Winton Woods (6-0).

Against La Salle, the Crusaders got a solid effort from senior quarterback Mitch McKenzie, making his first start of the season after junior Miles McBride suffered a season-ending foot injury last week against St. Xavier.  McKenzie, 7-of-12 for 34 yards off the bench last week, completed 15-of-24 passes for 219 yards, two TDs and no interceptions against La Salle.  RJ Khayo and McCracken (two TD receptions)  each caught five passes for 77 and 49 yards, receptively.  Moeller, which scored the most points this season against La Salle’s tough defense, could not get much going on the ground – carrying 34 times for 71 yards.

Merritt played solid for La Salle, tossing the two TD passes and running for the game-winner.  His 8-yard scoring strike to Josh Whyle with 1:33 left in the third quarter gave the Lancers a 21-17 edge.  Whyle, the University of Cincinnati commit, had a team-high nine catches for 85 yards.  La Salle also scored on special teams, with senior Sam Hildebrand returning the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a TD to tie the game, 14-14.  It was the second consecutive week that Moeller allowed a kickoff return for a score, with St. Xavier’s Jared Kreimer bringing one back 95 yards last Friday.