Not much went right for the West Geauga gridders through the majority of three quarters, as visiting rival Chagrin Falls appeared to be on its merry way into playoff contention on Friday night at Howell Field.
The Wolverines (5-4, 5-1) booted away their fifth punt of the Chagrin Valley Conference clash, and Chagrin Falls (5-4, 4-2) took over on a 52-yard field with a 16-0 upper hand and 7:08 remaining in the third quarter.
At that point, West Geauga had just 59 yards of net offense, often getting behind the sticks for fourth-and-longs. Not to mention, the Wolverines had a long snap go over 6-foot-4 senior punter Riley Huge’s head, as well as a muffed punt return to gift-wrap a pair of Chagrin scores in the second quarter.
West Geauga star running back Trae Zimmermann did not dress – he’s out for the rest of the season with a knee injury – and then two-way senior lineman Harrison Gruber exited the game with a first-half injury, and another Wolverine would be taken off on a stretcher in the fourth quarter.
But it was military appreciation night for the host Wolverines, who wore their camo uniforms, and they weren’t about to just retreat and wave the white flag against their neighbors from the south.
“We come in at halftime down (16-0), and we had a great week of practice,” West Geauga second-year head coach Adam Sopkovich said. “We had to win to get into the playoffs, and having some of these injuries that happened on the field was kind of like, you know, you can’t compare it to war or what those men do. But, in a sense, you have to relate it.
“You don’t leave a guy down. You pick him up, and you go. We had guys go down with ACLs in the past two weeks, another two guys go down tonight – we had a kid carted off the field. But instead of guys getting scared and backing away, they fought for their brothers.”
That long snap over Huge’s head came on the first play of the second quarter and provided Chagrin Falls a 7-yard field. But on the next play, the Tigers lost a fumble, and West Geauga senior defensive back Luke Musser recovered it at his own 1-yard line. The next play, Chagrin breached the trenches for a safety and a 2-0 lead with 11:42 to go in the frame.
Taking over the ensuing possession on a 54-yard field, Chagrin Falls drew up a double-reverse pass from senior receiver Tommy Richmond to junior slotback Xavier Perez for a razzle-dazzle 54-yard touchdown and 9-0 lead with 11:17 to go in the half.
On Chagrin’s next possession, West Geauga forced the Tigers to a three-and-out punt, but the return was muffed off a Wolverine’s chest, and Chagrin’s Richmond recovered it on a 24-yard field. Returning for week-nine action from an injury, Chagrin senior running back Will O’Brien took the next play to the house for a 16-0 Tiger lead with 6:48 to go in the half.
“We still came into the second half never thinking we were going to lose a step,” West Geauga senior linebacker Levi Veverka said about the deficit. “We knew we were getting the ball to start the second half, and all we wanted to do was score.”
The West G boys didn’t quite come out and score right away – in fact, they went three-and-out on their first two possessions of the third quarter – but their defense held Chagrin to an interception, picked off by Veverka, and a three-and-out punt in the frame.
Taking over on their own 17-yard line, West Geauga marched seven plays down the field with a 15-yard gain by sophomore slotback Michael Cavasinni, a 16-yard jaunt by senior running back Joe Peterson and a 17-yard toss from Huge to Musser, before junior running back Peter Sanelli got free on a 22-yard score to cut the deficit, 16-6, with 2:10 left in the quarter.
“We were shifting the offense to the left side for the D to look at that, and then we would pull a guy over, and I would just run behind him, get a linebacker to block up the field and just go,” Sanelli said. “That’s what we did for that play, and it just kept working. I found the end zone.”
On West Geauga’s next defensive series, junior defensive back Dillon Mikulski suffered an injury and was carted off the field on a stretcher with 9:27 to play.
“I know I was very emotional, and I know how we are as a family and as a team,” coach Sopkovich said. “And when you lose one of your brothers, you can be sad. You can cry about it. But there are things you can’t control, and that’s what I’m trying to teach these young men: Do you want to just give in, or do you want to go forth?
“And they all came up to Dillon and kind of touched him as he’s going off the field. It was like, something did change right there, because it was more than a game at that point.”
The Wolverines held Chagrin to a 38-yard field-goal attempt that was no good with 7:20 remaining in the game. Signal-caller Huge came out and dialed up Veverka on a 50-yard toss followed by a 30-yard touchdown toss to Cavasinni to cut the deficit, 16-13, on a two-play drive with just 20 seconds coming off the clock.
Huge had just 38 yards passing before those tosses.
Less than two minutes after that, Veverka came up with a 53-yard pick-six to provide the Wolverines their first lead, 20-16, with 5:24 to play. It was his second interception of the night.
“I watched them on film all week, and you can predict those plays,” Veverka said. “I’m telling you, I was calling them all game. So, absolutely, I expected it. The quarterback looked both ways, I just stuck true to what I knew to do, and I broke on it. You know, God bless me.”
On Chagrin’s ensuing possession, a third-and-1 pass was broken up by West G sophomore Chris Ranallo, and then Wolverine senior lineman Tyler Moriarty stuffed the Tigers on a fourth-and-1 run play to take over possession on a 35-yard field with 3:47 remaining.
After a loss on first down, West G handed the pigskin to Sanelli, who continued his coming-out party on the offensive side of the ball with a 39-yard touchdown run to seal the fate of the Tigers, 27-16, with 3:20 to play.
“It was the same play I scored on before,” Sanelli said. “Our coach just said it was working and to just run it hard. It just ended up working with the right offense.”
On a last-ditch effort, Chagrin drove down to the Wolverine 18-yard line by way of a 31-yard reception by Richmond, but West Geauga put the game to bed on a second-down sack from seniors Jajuan Glover and Dylan Baliker and then a fourth-down sack by Peterson.
Up next, West G hosts Division IV AP No. 3-ranked Perry (9-0, 6-0) and Chagrin Falls hosts Geneva (7-2, 5-1) in regular-season finales at 7 p.m. Friday. If either Chagrin or West G can pull off an upset, there’s enough computer points on the board to remain optimistic of a playoff berth.