The scoreboard showed a tale of two halves, but ball security was a key difference for the West Geauga gridders in a home rout of Painesville Harvey last Thursday at Howell Field in Chester Township.
The host Wolverines (3-1) owned a 3-0 lead at intermission with three turnovers holding them back. The first came on special teams, when a Harvey (1-3) punt took an errant bounce that hit off a West G returner, allowing Red Raider senior Will Grimes to recover it on the Wolverine 37-yard line.
West Geauga’s defense didn’t budge and forced another Raider punt down to the 2-yard line. The Wolverines drove 90 yards, but then 5-foot-8 junior quarterback Danny Stewart’s 8-yard pass into the end zone was tipped off 6-foot-1 junior receiver Torry Stazzone’s hand and intercepted by Harvey freshman defensive back Katory Shaw.
And late in the second quarter, Grimes intercepted another Stewart pass at the Red Raiders’ 16-yard line.
West Geauga owned just a 3-0 lead at the break, thanks to a 36-yard field goal by junior thunder foot Joey DiLalla.
But with ball security becoming less of an issue in the second half, the Wolverines went on to score five touchdowns and put a 38-0 skunking on the Raiders.
“I know we made mistakes in the first half, but Harvey wasn’t playing bad football,” West Geauga third-year head coach Adam Sopkovich said. “In the second half, we said we’re going to limit down this, we’re going to make these adjustments, and it was the first time in a long time I’ve seen my kids buckle down and execute.
“We just finally started clicking for the first time this season.”
Perhaps most impressive, the Wolverines’ offense went to town in the second half without standout senior running back Trae Zimmermann, who had eight carries for 35 yards but exited the game as a precautionary measure with swelling to his knee.
In turn, 180-pound senior Peter Sanelli and 175-pound sophomore Burke Buell took the load on their shoulders.
Sanelli returned the third-quarter kickoff 39 yards to midfield, and then Buell had a 28-yard chunk play down to the Raider 11. A couple snaps later, Buell punched in a 6-yard touchdown run for a 10-0 upper hand with 10:22 left in the frame.
Buell would finish the game with eight carries for 80 yards.
“He’s played every game,” Sopkovich said of Buell. “We’ve played him at receiver. We’ve played him here and there, but this was the first time he came in as the featured back. I’m pretty proud of the young man. He kind of just took control of the game, and that was that.”
On Harvey’s ensuing series, West G 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior linebacker Julian Cicchella forced a fumble in the Raider backfield, and Wolverine 6-foot senior Luke Musser recovered it on the Harvey 39.
Cicchella is a Newbury product who joined the Wolverines in the second week of the season and has been a game-changer. He led the defense with 10 tackles, seven for losses, and three sacks against Harvey.
Four plays later, Buell capitalized with another 6-yard touchdown run and a 17-0 lead with 7:52 to go in the third.
And on West G’s next possession, Stewart dialed up Stazzone on a 17-yard touchdown toss for a 24-0 advantage with seven seconds left in the frame. Stewart finished eight-of-12 passing for 132 yards with five completions going to Stazzone for 101 yards. Not to mention, Stewart also had 12 carries for 83 yards.
“Danny (Stewart) knew he had to step up, because Trae’s knee started acting up,” Sopkovich said. “And finally, with a few games of experience getting his feet up underneath him, my quarterback decided that he was going to run our offense.”
West Geauga did lose another turnover to open the fourth quarter, this time on a fumble at midfield, but the Wolverines got the pigskin right back when 180-pound sophomore tackle Austin Pascoe pounced on a high Raider snap to provide his offense an 18-yard field.
Sanelli capitalized on a 3-yard touchdown run for a 31-0 lead with 7:52 left in the game. Sanelli finished with nine carries for 73 yards. Overall, the Wolverines had 271 yards rushing and 403 yards for the game under offensive coordinator Adam Lowther.
On Harvey’s ensuing possession, West Geauga 5-foot-9 junior defensive back Chris Ranallo intercepted a tipped pass to provide the Wolverines a 39-yard field. West G capitalized for the third time of the half with a 2-yard touchdown keeper by Stewart for the 38-0 final.
Despite losing four turnovers, West G’s defense surrendered no points with Cicchella and fellow middle linebacker Lucas Sadler, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound junior, leading the way.
“Our defense has been playing dominant pretty much all year,” Sopkovich said. “Julian Cicchella, who came in late, has been a terror. Him and Lucas Sadler work so well together as linebackers. Those two dudes in the middle had never played a snap together, but the way they communicate, you’d think they grew up together.
“So our defense is kind of playing lights out.”