VAN WERT — Coming into the season Van Wert had high expectations.
After going 5-5 2017, the Cougars returned a talented core of senior players along with the rest of the returnees believed they could make some waves in 2018.
After winning their opener against Bryan, the Cougars then faced the the Western Buckeye League elite, falling42-14 to Wapakoneta and then 38-6 to St. Marys.
In game four against Ottawa-Glandorf, the Cougars were in danger of falling to 1-3 and their dreams of a big season were quickly evaporating as Van Wert watched the Titans make a fourth quarter run and send the game into overtime.
However, the Cougars pulled out that victory in the extra session and since that win the Cougars went on a tear that would see them win seven straight to make the postseason.
“If we lose that we are 1-3 and I don’t know where our season is at,” Van Wert head coach Keith Recker said. “To give up a 16-point lead in regulation and get it into overtime and get a win and since then we have been on a roll.”
The winning ways have continued into the playoffs when Van Wert beat Huron, 21-7, in the first round and now the Cougars face an old nemesis in St. Marys at Spartan Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday.
The two setbacks by St. Marys and Wapakoneta may have actually helped Van Wert.
“Looking back on it now that was probably the best thing to start with those guys,” Recker said. “We needed to be tested physically. Somebody that is going to play really good defense and try to run the ball right at us and we didn’t respond well.”
Despite the loss to St. Marys, Recker said his team did some small things against the Riders, like stopping them on fourth and one, helping bolster the team’s confidence despite getting beat.
Van Wert has come a long way since that loss.
“I think the biggest difference in us is we have an identity offensively,” Recker said. “We figured out what we we’re good at. We were trying to figure out if we were going to be heavy on the run or the pass and I think after the Ottawa-Glandorf game we figured out we could run the ball very well.”
Senior signal caller Nate Place spearheads the offense. The dual threat quarterback led the WBL in rushing with 1,319 yards and 21 touchdowns but also threw for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns during the regular season.
“Nate Place our quarterback has been phenomenal this year,” Recker said. “I wouldn’t be hard pressed to say he is the best player in the league for what he has done for us.”
Coming out the backfield is Jake Hilleary who gained 1,057 yards and 15 touchdowns and Van Wert’s leading receiver is Drew Bagley who recorded 56 catches for 441 yards and one touchdown.
As a team, the Cougars were second in the WBL in team offense, averaging 413 yards a game and second in scoring averaging 35.1 points a game. Recker estimates that the Cougars run the ball 65 percent of the time.
Recker points to the development of the offensive line being the difference.
“They have really come together and have a great understanding of what we are trying to do,” Recker said. “Those guys expected to win but expecting to win and learning how to win are two different things. I think at the Ottawa-Glandorf game we learned how to win and moved forward from there.”
Defensively, the Cougars were third overall, giving up an average of 262.2 yards a game but more importantly, Van Wert was tops in the WBL against the run, giving up a 111.2 yards per game. The Roughriders come into game as the No. 1 team in the WBL rushing, averaging 306.3 yards a game.
“We are the second worse team in pass defense but we have the second lowest completion percentage against us and that is the area we have to get fixed,” Recker said. “We stop guys, stop guys, stop guys and then give up a 40 yard touchdown and that is something that can be a killer against someone like St. Marys who runs the ball so well.”
Recker said the defense is anchored by its two defensive ends, Bagley and Joey Schaufelberger who he calls two of the better defensive linemen in the league and those two are helped by linebackers Butch Eutsler and Parker Conrad.
Roaming in the defensive backfield and providing the necessary punch is free safety Jalen McCracken who leads the team in interceptions and is in the top three in total tackles.
As the Cougars prepare for St. Marys, Recker said the one thing he enjoys the most is the fan support and the community getting behind Van Wert who has not made the playoffs since 2000. Two years ago, Van Wert did not win a game.
“Some people may call it a distraction, but I call it excitement,” Recker said. “Our kids deserve this. It is fun seeing the community excited and I didn’t know if they knew how our football team was doing. The stands are full during pre-game for our playoff game. We have pep rallies and bonfires and a lot of fun things to really make this a memorable experience for them because it is so neat they get to go through this.”
Division VII, Region 26
Leipsic (10-1) vs. McComb (10-1)
at Findlay Donnell Stadium
Leipsic will look to avenge its lone loss of the season when the Vikings face McComb in a rematch from week six when the Panthers won 38-7.
McComb comes into the game on a four-game winning streak and won its opening playoff game against Patrick Henry, 45-21. In the Panthers’ win, quarterback Tanner Schroeder was Mr. Everything as he completed 4 of 5 passing for 86 yards and rushed for 200 yards and four touchdowns.
Leipsic won its opening postseason contest with a convincing win over previously unbeaten and No. 1 ranked Mohawk, 40-14.
In the win, Dylan Schroeder was 17 of 22 passing for 245 yards and three touchdowns.
Pandora-Gilboa (11-0) vs. Edgerton (11-0)
At Defiance Fred Brown Athletic Complex
It is a battle of unbeatens and another tough test for Pandora-Gilboa.
Edgerton is coming off a big win over state powerhouse Norwalk St. Paul 36-0. This is the second consecutive shutout for the Bulldogs who have four shutouts on the season and have given up 66 points on the season.
Hunter Prince rushed for 237 yards and three touchdowns. For the game, the Bulldogs amassed
The Rockets won their opening game with a 33-7 over Tiffin Calvert. In the game Jared Breece was 24 of 33 for 342 yards with two touchdowns and rushed for three touchdowns. Receiver Riley Larcom caught seven passes for a school record 175 yards and two touchdowns.
Division VII, Region 28
Crestview (10-1) vs Minster (8-3)
at Wapakoneta Harmon Field
Minster ousted Crestview from last year’s playoffs, 25-32, and the Knights will be looking for a little payback.
Minster comes into the game after beating Riverside 51-6 in the opening round of the playoffs. Minster quarterback Jacob Niemeyer was 13 of 19 for 218 yards and three touchdowns and Brock Miller rushed for 108 yards on 12 carries.
Crestview had little trouble with Cincinnati Miami Valley Christian Academy 51-30 in the first game of the playoffs. Knight Drew Kline was 12 for 21 for 212 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns.