AVON — First impressions can mean everything in high school football.
The problem is it’s the last one that means the most in the playoffs.
Sixth-seeded Highland looked good on its opening drive against third-seeded Avon in a Division II, Region 4 opener. But it soon found out the Eagles were worthy of their top 10-ranking in The Associated Press state poll in a 49-20 loss on Friday.
The Hornets (6-5) went 75 yards to open the game, but Avon (10-1) rattled off 21 straight points in rapid fashion in a half that got away from Highland rather fast.
It’s the second year in a row the Eagles have knocked the Hornets out of the playoffs.
“We know that they’re an explosive offensive team,” Highland coach Mike Gibbons said. “But when you’re down 21-3, you’re in a tough situation right away.
“Our game plan was to get in there and control the ball on them, and get a couple turnovers on defense, but give them credit.”
The Eagles, who will play second-seeded Perrysburg (11-0) in six days, weren’t without their stars on a high-octane offense that averaged 45.1 points per game coming in.
Jake Sopko finished 12-for-20 for 157 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
He found targets in Will Heilman (5 catches, 67 yards, TD), Darrin Davis (2, 25, 1) and Jason Santora (2, 29).
Gerett Choat controlled the ground game with 151 yards on 21 carries with three touchdowns.
“Their offense is our offense,” Highland two-way starter Tyler Frederick said. “It’s the Mount Union offense. They just have good players that went out and made plays like their supposed to.
“I think they’re the best team in the region. Choat has been playing running back since his sophomore year (he’s a senior). The same with their quarterback. I think they’ll do it in this region. I think they’ll beat (top-seeded) Midview, too.”
That said, Highland’s special teams did Avon a few favors.
While Charles Howe’s two field goals were the only points scored in the first half, punts of 16 yards and 31 yards led to quick scores by the Eagles.
The 16-yard punt turned into a 1-yard touchdown run by Choat with 1:11 remaining left in the first quarter.
The 31-yard boot turned into a one-play drive when Sopko hit a wide-open Heilman for a 23-yard score 48 seconds into the second quarter.
Add an 80-yard kickoff return from Michael Nose in the third quarter and special teams was a sore spot for the Hornets.
“Those punts killed us,” Gibbons said. “We gave them a short field. It was definitely difficult. It put our defense in a tough position.”
The Hornets showed heart, cutting the deficit to 15 on three occasions. While their rushing yards left a bit to be desired — they had 51 yards on 35 carries — Tyler Zelinski threw a touchdown to Zach Filips and finished with 188 yards.
Unfortunately, he’ll exit along with eight other starters on offense. The defense loses five starters as well.
Those returning, come back with a message.
“Cherish the moment,” Zelinski said. “Live in that moment. Work your butts off and it will pay off in the end.”
That advice rang true from virtually every senior, as Highland left the field at Avon Stadium.
It’s a message, Gibbons intends to remind them of as the offseason gets underway.
“It starts Monday,” he said. “We try to knock down the doors in the weight room and start working hard.
“The one thing about these kids is they like to fight and they like to work hard. I know they’ll put in the work this offseason. They come from a winning culture. We’ll find out who our leaders are and who is going to step up.”
Former Highland coach and current St. Edward coach Tom Lombardo took in the game. Gibbons is Lombardo’s brother-in-law.
Contact Brad Bournival at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Division II, Region 4 quarterfinals
at Avon High School
HIGHLAND 3 3 14 0 — 20
AVON 14 7 14 14 — 49
H — Charles Howe 30 field goal, 7:57.
A — Darrin Davis 17 pass from Jake Sopko (Vince Gargaro kick), 5:54.
A — Gerett Choat 1 run (Gargaro kick), 1:11.
A — Will Heilman 23 pass from Sopko (Gargaro kick), 11:12.
H — Howe 30 field goal, 4:20.
A — Choat 1 run (Gargaro kick), 8:03.
H — Zach Filips 7 pass from Tyler Zelinski (Howe kick), 4:08.
A — Michael Nose 80 kick return (Gargaro kick), 3:57.
H — Manny Dela Cerna 1 run (Howe kick), :19.
A — Choat 48 run (Gargaro kick), 11:51.
A — Carter Rudy 18 run (Gargaro kick), 4:47.
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