MASSILLON – Neither rain, nor turnovers nor a 14-point second half deficit could prevent Van Wert from winning its first state championship.
Van Wert kicker Damon McCracken’s 25-yard field goal with nine seconds left in the game lifted the Cougars to a 31-28 victory over Mentor Lake Catholic in a heavy downpour in the Division IV state title game at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium Sunday.
Van Wert finished with a 11-1 mark for the season. Mentor Lake Catholic ended its year with a 8-3 record.
“I am just so happy for our kids and our community,” Van Wert head coach Keith Recker said. “Our kids have put in so much work and our community has really supported us and you can see how special it is right now. I’m so happy they get rewarded for this.”
McCracken’s boot, his first field goal attempt of the season, wasn’t pretty and it barely got over the crossbar as it drifted right but it was just enough to give the scarlet and gray Cougars the win. It marked the only time the Van Wert led in the contest.
Van Wert, which was down two touchdowns second half, rallied for a pair of scores to knot the game with 11:46 left in the game. However, Lake Catholic regained the lead when Lake Catholic Joe Malchasky broke off a 50- yard scamper for the score. With 5:25 left in the game, Mentor led 28-21
Van Wert responded on its next drive when it went 73 yards on 11 plays for the tying score when Owen Treece found Nate Jackson in the back of the end zone from 15 yards out for the touchdown. After the McCracken extra point, the score was tied 28-28 and the game appeared to be heading to overtime with 2:30 left in the game.
However, Van Wert’s defense, which had come up with big plays all season, recorded a huge one on the next series when on a fourth and 14, Dru Johnson picked off Malchesky at the Van Wert 45-yard line with 1:09 left in the game.
“We were running this type of zone and they were running crosses and I went across and I don’t think he saw me and he wasn’t expecting it and I slipped in behind him (receiver) and secured it,” Johnson said. “We never backed down this whole year. We don’t know back down. …Backing down wasn’t an option. Fourteen points down, 30 points down or 80 points down we were going to come back and get it.”
Treece swiftly moved Van Wert down the field and in six plays, they were down at the 8-yard line to set up the winning field goal.
“Things didn’t look good there when it was 21-7 and our guys just continued to play every play. We continued to play and keep our composure and I love the fight that they showed today.”
Treece finished the game 27 of 44 for 274 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. On the ground, the Van Wert quarterback rushed for 68 yards and one touchdown.
“This team is awesome and we have come together when it matters and that is just what we did,” Treece said. “This is a feeling I have never had before and I will remember this the rest of my life.”
Despite the slippery conditions, the Van Wert receivers came up big, especially in the clutch as two different receivers had touchdown catches. Maddix Crutchfield made 10 catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, Connor Pratt grabbed six catches for 106 yards and one touchdown and Johnson recorded four receptions for 43 yards.
Van Wert running back Nate Jackson was effective as a receiver with seven catches for 61 yards and one touchdown.
Defensively, Van Wert was most effective in the second half. Even though Malchasky had 219 yards and two touchdowns, Lake Catholic was held in check for the majority of the second half. The Lake Catholic signal caller had runs of 53 and 50 yards for score but was sacked twice and intercepted twice.
Van Wert’s Ty Jackson had a sack and Turner Witten and Aiden Pratt combined for a sack.
“We kind of switched it up a little bit (in the second half),” Recker said. “We ran a little bit more stunts but really it was our guys. They fought off blocks. They squeezed things and we continued to play our style of defense and it worked out.”
Van Wert squandered early opportunities to score in the first half when they drove into the red zone twice and came away with no points.
Penalties also hampered Van Wert’s effort as the Cougars were flagged six times for 60 yards in the first half but had only one in the second half.