By Tom Gamble, GCL South Commissioner
The state championships title defense ended Friday night for Greater Catholic League South Division members La Salle and St. Xavier as both schools were defeated in their respective regional finals in a pair of games almost certain to be declared instant classics in the Ohio High School Athletic Association State Football Tournament. Three-time defending Division II state champion La Salle saw its 17-game postseason winning streak end on the final play of the game in a 16-14 loss to Winton Woods in the Region 8 final, while defending DI state champ St. Xavier was unable to overcome rival Colerain in a 21-14 loss in the Region 4 title game.
La Salle (10-3), the No. 1 seed in its region and winner of five straight, was vying to avenge one of its two losses this season when it faced No. 2 Winton Woods (12-1) at Withrow High School’s Angus King stadium. And, much like in the regular-season meeting between the two powers – an 18-15, come-from-behind win by Winton Woods at La Salle in week five – it appeared that the Lancers might keep its state playoff streak alive when senior quarterback Griffin Merritt connected with junior receiver Jake Seibert on a 25-yard touchdown pass, followed by a Seibert extra point to give La Salle its first lead of the game, 14-13, with 2:04 remaining.
But Winton Woods, which had scored 61 and 52 points, receptively, in its opening playoff wins against Chillicothe and Anderson, responded like it did in the first meeting when La Salle carried a 7-5 lead into the fourth quarter before the Warriors scored consecutive TDs. This time, it wasn’t a TD but instead a field goal – a 28-yarder by Yeri Velasquez, his third of the game (also good from 23 and 35 yards) – with one second remaining that gave Winton Woods the win and kept the Warriors’ state title hopes alive.
Led by senior quarterback Kenny Mayberry, the Warriors mounted a game-winning drive that included a Mayberry run for a first down on fourth-and-three from midfield. Even after having had a TD called back because of a penalty, Mayberry was still able to engineer a drive to put Winton Woods in position for the game-winning field goal. Mayberry accounted for more than 225 yards of total offense to lead Winton Woods, passing for 163 yards and running for 64 more on just 15 carries, including a 20-yard run to give the Warriors a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
Ironically, Massillon Washington is Winton Woods’ opponent at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Columbus St. Francis Desales Alumni Stadium. Washington, which defeated New Albany, 24-6, in its semifinal Friday to advance, is led by former La Salle coach Nate Moore – who began the string of three straight state titles by guiding the Lancers to the 2014 state championship. La Salle then won its next two crowns under Jim Hilvert, who left after last season to become head coach at Baldwin Wallace University. First-year Lancers coach Pat McLaughlin led his team to a fourth straight 10-win plus season and a regional final appearance despite graduating a number of key players. La Salle is 50-8 the last four seasons, including 17-1 in the playoffs.
Like its GCL South colleague La Salle, St. Xavier was attempting to defend a state title as the Bombers won the DI crown last year by putting together an improbable run through a gauntlet of difficult opponents – including Colerain – to become the first program in OHSAA history at any level to win a state title after finishing 6-5 in the regular season. To move on this time, too, the Bombers would again have to get past Colerain – a team they had played earlier this season, a 20-17, come-from-behind win in OT at Colerain, and also last season in the regional semis – a 29-23 win after trailing by double digits.
On Friday, at a packed Mason High School’s Atrium Stadium, Colerain again built an advantage – holding a 14-0 lead in the second quarter before St. Xavier scored to make it 14-6. The Bombers tied the game in the third quarter on consecutive pass plays from senior Chase Wolf to senior Andrew Wittrock, tie first covering 66 yards to set up a 6-yard TD strike. St. Xavier then converted the two-point conversion on a Wolf to Bobby Jefferson II pass to make it 14-14.
But Colerain, which rushed for 385 yards on 54 carries – a 7.1-yard average – against a stingy St. Xavier defense, responded with a seven-play, 80-yard that was capped by a 4-yard TD run from junior Syncere Jones to give the Cardinals a 21-14 advantage that they made stand up thanks to a defense that limited St. Xavier to 183 total yards. The Bombers rushed 17 times for 15 yards, while Wolf did complete 15-of-22 passes for 168 yards and two TDs. Wolf, a University of Wisconsin recruit and the GCL South Player of the Year, finished his senior season by completing 64.2 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,948 yards with 25 TDs and just three interceptions.
The win moves Colerain (11-2), winner of 11 straight games since falling to St. Xavier in week two, into the state semifinals where it will meet Pickerington Central at 7:30 Friday night at Springfield Evans Stadium. Pickerington Central defeated district rival Pickerington North, 31-14, in its semifinal to advance. Colerain is vying to win its second state football crown since winning its first in dominating fashion back in 2004. One thing is for sure though. The Colerain-St. Xavier series might be the best in Ohio high school football in recent years when you consider the numbers.
The two programs have played twice each of the last four seasons, with three of the last four and four of six going into OT. While Friday’s game did not need an extra period, it had all the makings of two heavyweights playing each other with huge stakes on the line. Led by 218 yards on 12 carries from junior J.J. Davis, including a 91-yard TD run to give Colerain a 14-0 lead, and a defense led by junior Ivan Pace Jr. and senior Dan Bolden, the Cardinals held down St. Xavier’s potent offense – which had scored 40 and 37 points, respectively, in first two playoff wins against Fairfield and Sycamore.
It still was an outstanding season for St. Xavier (11-2), which won the coveted GCL South championship outright with a perfect 3-0 league mark. The Bombers’ lone defeat before Friday was a 28-14 loss on the road to Cleveland St. Ignatius in a rematch of last year’s state final, won by St. Xavier, 27-20, in double OT. Coach Steve Specht’s team began and ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in The Enquirer’s Division I area coaches’ poll, spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Di state rankings and also wound up the top seed in the Region 4 Harbin computer ratings.