The Chardon gridders were nearly 6 feet under with a two-touchdown deficit starting to dig their grave midway through the fourth quarter.
What appeared to be a hook-and-ladder lifeline turned into the Hilltoppers getting their hearts ripped out by video replay during their Division III state championship against Columbus St. Francis DeSales on Saturday night at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon.
On fourth-and-goal from the 14-yard line, Topper senior quarterback Drew Fetchik dialed up 6-foot-5 senior receiver Brady Toth for a reception at the 4-yard-line, where Toth then lateraled the pigskin to senior running back Evan Ash to finish off the play for what was originally signaled a touchdown.
Upon video review, however, it was ruled that Toth’s knee was down before he made the lateral. Therefore, the DeSales Stallions took over possession with a 28-14 upper hand and 7:52 to play.
“I’m 99 percent sure I wasn’t down,” Toth said. “But on the big screen it looked like I was. I mean, we put that play in yesterday. So, I think it was a great play. Our heads didn’t go down. We kept them up. We didn’t give up.”
A team that cruised through the postseason with running-clock victories each step of the way, AP No. 1-ranked Chardon was facing its first deficit since trailing Western Reserve Conference foe Kenston, 6-0, at the quarter mark of a week-three battle on Sept. 11, which the Toppers ended up winning, 37-6.
And Chardon’s brand of smashmouth football wasn’t going so smashmouth, as the Hilltoppers were getting outrushed, 5.5 yards per carry to 3.4 yards per carry, with DeSales 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior running back Quintell Quinn having his way on 28 carries for 216 yards and three touchdowns.
Yet, somehow, the Chardon gridders remained awake in the graveyard.
“I trusted my brothers, and I knew that they were going to have my back, and I had their back,” senior linebacker Blake Barker said. “So, I knew we were going to come out on top.”
Adversity didn’t just hit hard, but it seemed to come down in buckets all night for the boys from Geauga County.
DeSales’ Quinn, an Ohio University recruit, broke loose for a 74-yard touchdown run on just the second play of the game.
Barker had a 90-yard kickoff return to the crib called back on a penalty.
A razzle-dazzle double pass resulted in an interception.
That hook-and-ladder touchdown was negated by video review.
The run game wasn’t going particularly well for the wing-T.
And DeSales was keeping drives alive by converting seven third downs.
So much seemed to go wrong throughout the duration of the night for the Hilltoppers, but so much seemed to be so right when it all came to an end.
Not only did the Chardon gridders manage to fight back to tie the game by the end of regulation, but 6-foot-1 junior kicker Nathan Tager split the uprights from 33 yards out in double overtime to provide his team its first lead of the night, 31-28.
Brouhaha engulfed Hilltopper nation when DeSales’ kicker missed from 37 yards out to make it official, as the Chardon boys were dancing with their first state title since 1994.
“It’s just feeling great,” Tager said of being a state champion. “It’s just a feeling like no other. It’s awesome.”
A true rookie, Tager just came out for football this year.
“I just saw it as an opportunity, and so did some of my family members,” he said. “Everybody just wanted me to try it out. So, I decided to try it, and it paid off.”
After DeSales (9-2) took a 7-0 lead just 61 seconds into the game – on that 74-yard touchdown run by Quinn – Stallion 6-foot-3 junior quarterback Whit Hobgood came out slinging with a 51-yard toss to senior receiver Jordan Johnson on their next possession.
But DeSales senior JJ Baughman couldn’t capitalize on a 42-yard field goal attempt to potentially put his team up, 10-0, after the 6-foot-2 kicker had connected from 41 yards out the previous week.
Instead, Chardon (12-0) flipped the gridiron on an 80-yard drive that featured a 46-yard keeper by Fetchik and then a 1-yard sneak to tie the game, 7-7, with eight seconds remaining in the first quarter.
After back-to-back punts, DeSales converted three straight third downs to open the door for Quinn’s 15-yard touchdown run and a 14-7 upper hand with 59 seconds left in the half.
Chardon’s Barker appeared to have returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to the crib only for it to be called back on a blocking penalty. The Hilltoppers went into intermission facing their first halftime deficit of the season.
Not to mention, they were getting outgained, 216 yards to 112 yards, at the break.
“Going into halftime, I was just like, I’ve got to get hydrated, because I was winded after that,” Barker said of his 90-yard return that was called back. “After that, I knew we were going to get it back. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I knew we were going to score to make that play come back for us.”
After Fetchik threw just one pass, which went incomplete, in the first half, the Hilltopper quarterback went berserk on nine-of-13 passing for 249 yards and two touchdowns after the break. Not too shabby for a wing-T signal-caller.
Not to mention, Fetchik led Chardon’s ground attack with 87 yards on 13 keepers.
To open the third quarter, Fetchik dialed up Barker on a backdoor screen pass that went for a 63-yard touchdown to tie the game, 14-14, with 11:04 remaining in the frame. Thanks to some downfield blocking by 6-foot-3, 285-pound senior offensive lineman Matt Kloski, Barker broke one tackle from 20 yards out and zipped down the sideline the rest of the way.
“That play we were supposed to make it look like the ball was going to the right, and I just act like I’m blocking,” Barker said. “So, no one’s expecting me to come out, and I just shuffled out and saw all the green grass and I just took off.”
That momentum was short-lived, as DeSales came up with an interception on Chardon’s next possession, off that razzle-dazzle double pass.
One play later, Stallion workhorse Quinn broke out of the gates once again, this time on a 60-yard touchdown run, to reclaim the lead, 21-14, with 8:42 left in the third.
DeSales did more damage on its next possession, when Hobgood tossed a 31-yard touchdown to Johnson in single coverage down the left side for a 28-14 upper hand with 2:07 left in the frame. Hobgood would finish 11-of-20 passing for 183 yards, with six of his completions going to Johnson for 145 yards.
Then, when Chardon needed an answer the most, the Hilltoppers appeared to respond on the following drive with a 23-yard screen pass to junior fullback Sean Carr to set up that hook-and-ladder from 14 yards out that was first signaled a touchdown and then ruled that Toth’s knee was down at the 4-yard line upon video replay.
“That hook-and-ladder getting taken off the board, late in the game, in some ways that’s like getting your heart ripped out,” Chardon 10th-year head coach Mitch Hewitt said. “The kids could have easily folded. But they went back out on defense with a great stand, got the ball back, come and score. It was incredible.”
Chardon’s defense, which hadn’t surrendered more than 14 points in a game all season, stepped up to the table with a three-and-out stop, forcing DeSales to punt from its own 6-yard line.
On the very next play, Fetchik redialed Barker, who was wide open on the right side with nothing but pasture for 36-yard touchdown to trim the deficit, 28-21, with 6:09 to play – less than two minutes after that hook-and-ladder.
“When I came out on the wheel, I looked, and I saw no one downfield and no one inside of me,” Barker said. “And I was like, ‘I just have to catch this,’ and it was a walk into the end zone. It was a great play call.”
Finally dialed in, Chardon’s defense came up with another three-and-out stop, with Barker tackling Quinn 5 yards behind the sticks on third down, but DeSales’ punt took a favorable bounce and rolled dead at the 9-yard line.
That’s when Fetchik went back to work on the game-tying, 91-yard drive, first by completing a 48-yard toss to Toth on a reception that originally got knocked up in the air upon delivery, before Toth came back down with it for an additional 15 yards.
“I think it first went off my hands, and then the defender tipped it towards me and it just fell right into my breadbasket,” Toth said. “That’s a great play, but I’m doing it for my brothers, because I wanted this game. This is the game we played for all four years of high school football. It’s amazing.”
Fetchik went on to complete a 34-yard screen pass – the third explosive screen play of the half – to 6-foot-3 junior tight end Alex McDonald to set up a first-and-goal from the 10.
Two plays later, Chardon’s Ash took a sweep to the pylon with a block by Carr giving him enough room around the edge for an 8-yard touchdown and a 28-28 tie ballgame with 2:13 remaining.
With DeSales’ speedy defenders taking away fellow senior running back James Pettyjohn – who entered the night with 20 touchdowns for the season – the door opened for Ash to come through for his fourth end-zone find of 2020.
“I know I have a role on this team where I’m normally a blocking back,” Ash said. “But I know I have to run my ‘Ash’ off as soon as I get that ball, and that’s what I did with help from my amazing linemen and my amazing halfback and quarterback.”
DeSales still had 2:13 to make something happen, but Chardon 6-foot-4 junior safety Nathanael Sulka, who played a limited role with his shoulder injury from two weeks prior, came up with an interception to give his offense a chance to actually win it in regulation.
A 49-yard field goal attempt by Tager, however, was no good, and overtime ensued.
But that didn’t take away from the fact that Chardon had all the momentum after overcoming a 28-14 deficit in the final 6 1/2 minutes of the game, despite never having been in that situation all season.
DeSales, on the other hand, had played two overtime games in the regular season.
“The difference that set us aside tonight was that we’ve all grown up together since first or second grade,” Ash said. “We’ve played together. All week, we’ve been talking about stories we’ve had together from grade school up until now. Not all teams can do that. It’s a special bond between us seniors and the whole team. So, we looked left; we looked right; and we did it for the brothers next to us.”
DeSales was third-and-goal from the 7-yard line on the opening possession of the first overtime, before Chardon 200-pound senior lineman Evan Gardner put the chase on Hobgood and forced him to throw it away.
Baughman lined up for the 24-yard field goal, but Hilltopper sophomore Trey Liebhardt got through and made a diving block to give his offense a chance to win it.
“Well, it’s fitting, because coach (Bob) Francis is my neighbor, and he’s our special-teams coach,” Liebhardt said. “And to block that kick and know that it helped win us a ring means everything.”
But the game didn’t end there.
Chardon’s ensuing overtime possession resulted in Tager’s 35-yard field goal attempt – pretty much a chip shot for him – being blocked by DeSales 6-foot-4 senior Joshua Martin-Hayden.
Double overtime was on its way.
“You just have to forget about all the other kicks that happen and all the other misses,” Tager said. “You just have to focus on the kick ahead of you. And I was just focused and made the next one. It was pretty scary, but my coach always says to keep everything out of your mind and to stay calm. It’s just a great feeling.”
Chardon had first possession of the second overtime, and Tager didn’t miss from 33 yards out to provide the Hilltoppers their first lead of the game, 31-28.
DeSales’ last chance included a third-down pass breakup by Toth, before Stallion kicker Baughman missed a 37-yard attempt from the left hash that had the Hilltoppers storming the gridiron in victory.
It was the first time a Division I, II or III program overcame a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter of a title game.
In the post-game huddle, coach Hewitt calmly spoke of faith, hope and love being the foundations of his gridders’ lives.
“This is a huge moment in your life,” he said. “You’ll have it for the rest of your life. But it won’t define you. And things will come and go. And I would say the same speech had we lost or won. But I am so proud of you.”
In addition to being serious, Hewitt got his boys fired up one final time.
“What are we again?” he said.
“State champs,” the Hilltoppers said in unison.
“What are we again?” Hewitt said.