VAN WERT — Van Wert is partying like its 1999, well 2000.
The Cougars will be playing in the Division IV state semifinals against Cincinnati Wyoming at Piqua at 7 p.m. Saturday and head coach Keith Recker said there is plenty of excitement and joy going around the school and the community much like the last time Van Wert went to the state semifinals.
“Twenty years ago we were in this spot as a school and there are people around that remember that and Coach (Jeff) Hood, who was the head coach at the time, is still our physical ed teacher so it kind of brings back good memories but other than that we have not been in this situation very often so it is pretty exciting for our school and for our players.”
Similar to that 2000 squad, not many expected the Cougars to make a deep run in the playoffs but over the course of the postseason Van Wert has made believers out of most everyone especially after dominating Shelby 49-7 in the regional finals.
As has been the case all year, Van Wert had big plays on both sides of the ball and against the Whippets the special teams also came up big.
“Our guys had a good week of practice and they came out ready to play. They are hungry and this success has not made them complacent. They are still very hungry to keep going even further and they are coming out and ready to play,” Recker said. “I think we can overwhelm teams with our physical play and athleticism and that might have been the case this weekend.”
Led by senior standout signal caller Owen Treece, the Cougars scored on its first possession when Treece hooked up with Dru Johnson, a familiar sight, for the first score and then on the Whippets next possessions the Cougars blocked a punt. Three plays later Treece and Johnson connected again and quicker than you can say momentum, Van Wert led 14-0.
After stopping Shelby on offense, Van Wert went down and scored again and then the Cougar defense came up big when Johnson got the job done on the other side of the ball by making an interception and going into the end zone from 25 yards out to put them up 28-0.
The defens;se second big play came soon after when it appeared Shelby was going to score at the 1-yard line, however, the Cougars forced a fumble and recovered the ball at the 4-yard line.
Then the offense got its big play in when Treece found Johnson for 86 yards with 8:30 left in the second quarter and the rout was inevitable.
For the game, Treece was 14-for-15 with 228 yards and five touchdowns. Johnson had four receptions and 136 yards and two touchdowns. For the game, Van Wert had 322 total yard.
Defensively, the Cougars limited Shelby to 150 yards of offense.
Recker said the defense has really stepped up its game after falling 35-34 to Ottawa-Glandorf.
Recker adds that holding Shelby to seven points and pretty much shutting them out for three quarters is a testament to how good the defense has gotten. The Whippets came into the game averaging 40.7 points a game.
“Our guys have really taken to those adjustments and have been playing as well as they have been playing all year,” Recker said. “Our defensive line is undersized but is as athletic and strong as any team.”
Recker said having that big play capability is nice but also understands that it can’t be relied on and he knows his squad is capable of sustaining drives.
“We thrive on big plays and we have all year,” Recker said. “We also don’t have a problem going six, eight or ten plays to get going and do a drive and hopefully score so I think we are able to do both so we would like to get our running game going a little bit more and have to do that more consistently but we also need to try and continue to create big plays even if it is a quick pass or a run for over 20 yards. We are OK with that too.”
Cincinnati Wyoming’s defense will look to stop the vaunted Van Wert offense and the Cowboys have been pretty successful stopping most teams this year. Wyoming is giving up only 7.4 points a game and have limited opponents to single digits in seven of those games.
In the playoffs, Graham put up 14 points and a top ranked Valley View squad scored 28 points in the regional semifinals, however, in the regional finals the Cowboys defeated Clinton-Massie 28-9.
Freshman defensive lineman Quaid Hauer leads the team in sacks with six.
Offensively, Cowboys quarterback Brennan Pagan has passed for 840 yards and 12 touchdowns with one interception and rushed for 406 yards and six touchdowns.
Pagan’s top target this year has been Joop Mitchell with 21 catches for 473 yards and 5 touchdowns.
C.J. Hester, who was the top rusher in the Cincinnati Hills League, leads the running game with 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The Cowboys come in with a lot of playoff experience. In 2018 Wyoming won the state title and beat St. Marys along the way. Last year they reached the state semifinals.
“Their players are not going to be in awe of this situation,” Recker said. “They have been there and have had the opportunity to win state championships like they did in 2018. they are a good program and you can tell Coach (Aaron) Hancock how good of a coach he is by playing so many sophomores or even play a freshman and to have them execute as well as they do is pretty impressive.”
Recker said controlling the line on both sides of the ball is one of the major keys to winning the game and stopping their running game as well as avoiding the big play.
“They have two big play guys (Mitchell and Hester) that we have to stop and keep their gains to a minimum, and we need to do a great job in the secondary and not give up big plays,” Recker said.
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468.