By Mark Schmetzer, Enquirer contributor
On their way to last season’s Division I state football championships, the St. Xavier Bombers had to rally from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime before going on to edge Sycamore, 35-28, in the Region 8 final.
The two teams met this season one round earlier, and St. Xavier made sure similar heroics wouldn’t be needed. After falling behind, 7-0, the Bombers reeled off 37 unanswered points to cruise into the regional final with a 37-7 win over the Aviators on the artificial turf of Dwire Field at Mason High School’s Atrium Stadium.
“There were a couple of things,” St. Xavier coach Steve Specht said about the turnaround. “We had better field position. When you pin them back, it limits your playbook. We’ve had some trouble this season adjusting to game speed, but we were able to do that.”
Junior running back Chris Payne, who went into the game with 169 rushing yards and two touchdowns all season, scored St. Xavier’s first two touchdowns and piled up 125 yards on 13 carries to spark the Bombers offense.
“I played with a little of a different kind of edge,” Payne said. “I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to show them where I was coming from. It wasn’t just me. Without the offensive line, I couldn’t have done it.”
Senior running back Matthew Fox added a touchdown and senior quarterback Chase Wolf threw for 151 yards and a touchdown to junior wide receiver Jared Kreimer for a St. Xavier (11-1) team that has scored at least 28 points in eight of its 12 games. Wolf finished 17-of-28 with one interception.
Sophomore running back Kellen Newman added a touchdown on an eight-yard run as St. Xavier took a 37-7 lead that led to a running clock.
“Last week, we had four different receivers score touchdowns,” Specht said. “This week, three different running backs scored. We’re able to spread the ball around. Our offense us diversified. Chris is growing up. We’re excited about his future.”
Senior linebacker Will Childs even got in on the scoring, being credited with the sack of Aviators’ sophomore quarterback Drew Altemuehle in the Sycamore end zone for a safety. The Bombers sacked a harried Altemuehle five times for a loss of 19 yards.
Region top-seed St Xavier, the Enquirer Division I coaches’ poll champion and ranked fourth in the Associated Press Division I statewide poll, is scheduled to play the winner of Friday’s other regional between second-ranked and second-seeded Colerain, the state's No. 10 team, and third-seeded Mason in the regional championship game next Friday at 7:30 p.m. at a site that still was to be determined.
The Comets and Sycamore (9-3) finished tied for fourth in the Enquirer poll.
Altemuehle helped Sycamore take a 7-0 lead with a 56-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Jonathan Malek on first down with 6:48 left in the first quarter.
The lead lasted three plays. On third-and-two, Payne broke through the line to a clear second level and sped 58 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
The teams traded punts on the next five possessions before St. Xavier embarked on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that Payne capped with a 14-yard burst on fourth-and-two with 3:26 left in the first half. Wolf, patiently settling for swing passes, was 7-for-7 for 57 yards on the drive.
The Aviators ended the first half with a 205-204 edge in total offense yards. The Bombers dominated on the ground, outrushing Sycamore, 115-47, but the Aviators built a 158-89 edge in passing yards despite Altemuehle being sacked four times.
Payne had 111 yards on seven carries by halftime.
The Bombers extended their run of unanswered points with touchdowns on their first two possessions of the third quarter. Wolf found Kreimer wide open for a 34-yard scoring pass and Fox broke free for a 32-yard touchdown run before Childs brought Altemuehle down in the Sycamore end zone for a safety.