Stop Trae Zimmermann.
That had to be priority No. 1 of Orange’s defensive game plan, when the Lions (1-4, 0-2) traveled to take on Zimmermann and his fellow West Geauga gridders (2-3, 2-0) in Chagrin Valley Conference play on Friday night at Howell Field.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound junior running back had 182 yards from scrimmage in the Wolverines’ 45-0 victory against Lakeside the previous week, and that was with a 102-degree fever. Zimmermann returned to the gridiron hungry for more against the Lions.
“Trae’s an exceptional kid. He just goes hard,” West Geauga second-year head coach Adam Sopkovich said. “That’s one kid that I know I can count on. You call his number, he’s going to make something happen, even when there’s nothing to make happen.”
West Geauga senior Joe Peterson returned the opening kick 37 yards to Orange’s 37-yard line, but the Lions defense held Zimmermann to 5 yards on his first three carries, including Lion 180-pound junior linebacker Greg Beard’s tackle for loss on fourth-and-2 to get off the field.
So far, so good for the Lions, who put out a trio of the fastest guys in the state, including Beard and seniors Diante White and Marvin Davies. In particular, Beard and White were on the Lions’ Division II state runner-up four-by-200-meter relay in the spring.
Zimmermann, in his own right, was on the Wolverines’ four-by-100 quarter that circled the track during the state meet in Columbus. But even if Zimmermann wasn’t necessarily going to outrun the Lions, he sure enough was going to run through them. After Orange attempted to convert a fourth-and-7 play from its own 35-yard line, with a dropped pass, Zimmermann took advantage of the short field with a tackle-breaking stiff-arm for a 35-yard touchdown run and a 6-0 lead with 8:08 remaining in the opening frame.
Two possessions later, he broke off a 57-yard touchdown run by outmuscling a pair of would-be tacklers at the 10-yard line for a 13-0 upper hand with 36 seconds to go in the first quarter.
“I mean, I just have fun,” Zimmermann said about running like a man among boys. “I don’t really think of it as stuff in the weight room. I just think it’s – I know how to play the game. I have fun doing what I’m doing.”
Orange senior Tre’von Davis showcased his speed on the ensuring kickoff, which he returned 71 yards down to the Wolverine 21.
After an 11-yard run by Davies helped set up the Lions at first-and-goal from the 4, West Geauga 190-pound senior linebacker Levi Veverka busted through for a sack, and then a bad snap and a penalty pushed the Lions back to fourth-and-goal from the 20.
Veverka also had a pair of tackles for losses later in the night.
“They ran a zone concept, so what stops zone is penetration,” Veverka said. “So, our linemen got the penetration for us and let us linebackers make the tackles. And, so, they were forced to trying to pass the ball, and our DBs are a lock. So, I’m not worried about it.”
A film-room guru, Veverka called the audibles for his defense all night.
After West Geauga broke up a fourth-and-20 lob toss into the end zone, Orange’s defense had the Wolverines stopped on third down, but a personal foul for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play provided them an automatic first down.
Zimmermann made the Lions pay on a 66-yard touchdown catch from 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior quarterback Riley Huge. The signal-caller delivered a 20-yard bullet over the middle, where Zimmermann hauled it in, spun off a Lion defender on his six and shielded off the rest of the defensive secondary giving chase on his way to the end zone for a 19-0 upper hand with 6:29 to go in the half.
“That was just a flat (route),” Zimmermann said. “I saw the one dude coming at me, and I know Orange. They have a lot of fast guys, because in track we saw them down in Columbus. Their four-by-one team is quick, and all those guys are on the field.
“So, I saw them and said, ‘I know I’m not going to outrun them, but I’ve got to do something to them.’ So, I used a stiff-arm when I could, and it worked.”
Zimmermann would finish the night with 234 yards from the line of scrimmage, including 142 yards rushing on 15 carries and 92 yards on two receptions to lay down the law on the Lions.
On West Geauga’s next possession, Huge dialed up 5-foot-9 senior receiver Aidan Pitcock on a 10-yard touchdown toss that had Pitcock diving for the pylon for a 25-0 upper hand 35 seconds before intermission. After Orange already blocked a pair of extra points, the Wolverines failed on a two-point attempt.
“Aidan is coming off a concussion, so he was out last week,” coach Sopkovich said. “He had a tough start, and then to get him in the end zone, he’s on homecoming court. So, Aidan’s a blessing to have on the team, very high IQ, a very intelligent kid, and he’s a coachable kid. And, so, to get him in the end zone, a senior, I just love it. That was awesome for him.”
There was 35 seconds left in the half, but Orange wasn’t going to kneel on it. A 38-yard catch by Davis, a 19-yard catch by White and a 9-yard run by senior quarterback Brian Pernell had the Lions at second-and-1 on the 19.
But a toss into the end zone on the final play of the half was picked off my Zimmermann to preserve the 25-0 upper hand. There would be no more scoring for the Wolverines.
“I thought we were going to come out and put up 25 more, honestly,” Zimmermann said. “We were in the locker room. We were fixing up some little things Sop wanted us to fix. Yeah, so he had us out here ready to score more points. We just came out here, and it wasn’t what we expected. That shouldn’t have happened. They shouldn’t have scored on us, I don’t think.”
With White’s run game coming to in the second half, Orange controlled the clock, and West Geauga only had two full possessions after intermission – the first resulting in a missed 34-yard field-goal attempt and the latter ending in a turnover on downs.
After White was limited to just 29 yards rushing in the first half, the Lion running back would finish the night with 24 carries for 139 yards and one catch for 19 yards.
But time was ticking for Orange, which burned 7:06 of clock on a 62-yard scoring drive that concluded with junior quarterback Zak Basharat’s 4-yard flea-flicker toss to Davies to cut the Lions’ deficit, 25-7, with 2:51 remaining in the game.
Davies went on to recovery senior Connor Whiteman’s ensuing onside kick on a 40-yard field, and Orange took advantage of the extra possession by way of a 14-yard touchdown run by White to trim the deficit, 25-13, with 1:17 to play.
But West Geauga’s Pitcock recovered the next onside attempt, and the Wolverines kneeled out the remainder of the clock to hang on for the 25-13 victory. Overall, West Geauga outgained Orange, 327 yards to 281 yards.
“I expected to have a shutout, but we had some mental lapses in our judgment,” Sopkovich said. “We had too many penalties and too many missteps. We played well in the first half. The second half just seemed like it got to our heads a little bit maybe.
“The culture of what we’re trying to build over here in this program is respect for the game. And when we have those penalties, it upsets me a little bit. In a homecoming win, I want to be happy. But I also want perfection out of my guys. I want to give Orange respect. Just because we’re rivals doesn’t mean you can’t shake hands and play the game for what it is.”