COAL GROVE — When the Ohio High School Athletic Association opted to allow every team to make the 2020 high school football playoffs as a part of a series of changes brought on by the pandemic, the decision had its fair share of naysayers.
Whether the criticism was fair or not, the OHSAA’s decision opened the door for several teams across the state that wouldn’t have made the playoffs in a normal season to play in high-leverage playoff games beginning in Week 7.
More than ever, the 2020 season was all about the old cliché — it’s not how you start that’s important, but how you finish. And boy, did the Loudonville Redbirds take full advantage of their opportunity and do something special with it.
After back-to-back wins over higher-seeded teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the 18th-seeded Redbirds jumped out to a 28-13 lead in the latter stages of the third quarter in their Division VI, Region 23 quarterfinal against Coal Grove Dawson-Bryant on Saturday.
However, all great stories come to an end, as the No. 10 Hornets scored 22 unanswered points, including the game-winning touchdown with 12.3 seconds left, to defeat the upset-minded Redbirds 35-28 and eliminate them from the postseason.
“I told them that their season isn’t based on one game,” Loudonville coach Kevin Maltarich said after the loss. “We got a lot further, and have done a lot of things good this year, than people thought we would. We came up a little short tonight, and you give all of the credit in the world to Coal Grove for winning it there at the end.”
While many tabbed the Redbirds (3-6) as underdogs in these playoffs, Maltarich said he and his team never looked at it that way. Even in a season-ending defeat, Loudonville looked every bit like a team that deserved to be playing for a shot at advancing to the regional semifinals.
“We play in such a brutal conference that our record doesn’t say anything about us,” Maltarich said. “We knew this year if we got into the playoffs, which because of COVID we got in, that we would have a chance to compete, and our kids took advantage of that.”
The Coal Grove offense, which is almost exclusively reliant on the run, pounded the Redbirds for 432 rushing yards. Senior Austin Stapleton totaled a whopping 303 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries, while Malachai Wheeler took 17 carries for 86 yards and a TD.
“[Stapleton] is a horse, man,” Coal Grove coach Jay Lucas said. “He’s the work horse that goes out and pounds it in there and gets us yardage when we need it.”
Coal Grove (6-2) advances to the regional semifinal to take on No. 3 Proctorville Fairland on Saturday.
With the Redbirds leading 28-13 at the 4:35 mark of the third quarter, CG cut into the deficit when Stapleton ran for a 33-yard score and followed it up with a 2-point conversion run. After Loudonville missed a 31-yard field goal attempt on its ensuing drive, Stapleton capped off an 81-yard drive with a 2-yard plunge into the end zone, knotting the game at 28-all after the PAT.
“It seemed like the kids right there started believing, ‘hey, we’re going to go get this,’” Lucas said of the missed field goal. “That was a big shift, for sure.”
Loudonville was forced to punt on its next drive, giving the ball back to CG. From there, the Hornets ate up the clock with their running game and converted on two fourth-and-1 situations. Later faced with a fourth-and-6 on the Loudonville 16 with just seconds left on the clock, CG quarterback Clay Ferguson hit Jarren Hicks in the left corner of the end zone for the game-winning TD.
“When they went down and scored, we had opportunities to put them away and we didn’t,” Maltarich said. “When you leave a team like that hanging around and give them some life, they’re going to bite you.”
Loudonville scored the first points of the game late in the opening quarter on a 5-yard scoring run from freshman phenom Sam Williams-Dixon. CG tied the game at 7 early in the second on Stapleton’s 42-yard scamper to the end zone.
After Redbird QB Logan Huffman (10 of 15 passing, 162 yards) was intercepted, CG took a 13-7 lead on Wheeler’s 26-yard scoring run.
“I ran that offense for 18 years,” Maltarich said of CG’s Wing-T attack. “I know what it does to people, but I’m actually on the opposite end of it tonight. As I was going through the week and preparing, that was one of my biggest concerns, that they would wear us down and if we didn’t have a lot of success at the beginning, when you play this type of team, they’ll physically wear you down. And while I don’t know if they wore us down, they executed and we didn’t.”
Huffman redeemed himself on the next drive, hitting Chuck Ganson (9 catches, 106 yards) for a 26-yard TD to give Loudonville a 14-13…