ORRVILLE — With the Black River offense already desperate late in the first quarter of a Division V, Region 17 semifinal against Canton Central Catholic, 27th-year coach Al Young rolled the dice and went for fourth-and-inches from his own 31-yard line.
Fullback Jacob Campbell converted, but the play was negated for an illegal motion.
With the final seconds of the game ticking away, the Pirates were finally near the end zone. Campbell was stuffed by unblocked Navy recruit Griffin Baumoel 2 yards shy on fourth-and-goal.
Those plays perfectly summarized an all-around frustrating Saturday, as seventh-seeded Black River couldn’t penetrate the third-seeded Crusaders’ front wall in a 30-0 loss at Red Rider Stadium that was still reasonably in doubt for 2ﾽ quarters.
Two-time defending state runner-up Central Catholic (8-3) advanced to play No. 8 Garrettsville Garfield (9-3) at Uniontown Lake, while the Pirates ended a memorable season 8-4.
“It’s hard to explain,” Campbell said. “We came out strong, but we just couldn’t get anything going our way.”
The Crusaders’ 4-4 defense that looked like an old-school 6-2 was stellar, holding Black River to 121 yards of total offense before surrendering 78 on the final drive. The Pirates converted 1-of-14 third downs, completed 2-of-13 passes and 33 of their 60 plays gained 2 yards or fewer.
The first half was brutal with 46 yards on 20 snaps, and the lone first down came when Campbell moved the chains on fourth-and-inches from the Black River 36. That play was the Pirates’ longest gain of the half at 9 yards.
Central Catholic parked outside linebackers Jaret Cummins and Luke Ezzo on the line of scrimmage, teaming with linemen Derek Levengood, James Wills, Logan Maier and Harris Stuffel to create a disciplined six-man front that never fell for ball fakes.
Linebackers Baumoel (game-high 15 tackles) and Gunnar Eberhardt (9) were rarely blocked, and safety Brady Thompson spent a lot of time in the box.
“Canton Central Catholic has a really, really good defense,” Pirates guard Cole Haswell said. “They would cut down and cut up the holes, and we couldn’t get to the second level.
“Congrats to them. They played with class. They played really, really well defensively.”
For all of the offensive struggles, the Black River defense nearly matched the Crusaders for 2ﾽ quarters. Outside linebacker Cory Hamilton (3ﾽ tackles for loss, 2 sacks) and end Nick Wagner (3ﾽ, 1ﾽ) starred, inside linebackers Campbell and Curtis Roupe were unblockable on up-the-gut blitzes and Garrett Hord got an interception.
Central Catholic quarterback Jack Murphy was extremely heady, but the Crusaders could muster only 10 points in the first half despite their first four drives starting on the Central Catholic 40, Black River 20, Black River 40 and Central Catholic 47. The drive that began at the 20 ended when Black River stopped Murphy on fourth-and-1 from the 11.
The highlight was a bizarre 13-play, 40-yard drive capped by a Dan Mills 30-yard field goal. The Crusaders had two TDs called back for holding but got second life when Black River roughed the snapper on a missed 37-yard field goal attempt. Central Catholic then lost 11 yards on a bad snap, and Murphy’s third-down pass to the end zone was high because of pressure from Campbell and end Jeff Owens.
“The defense was playing their rear ends off, and we couldn’t get them off the field to even get anything started,” Young lamented.
The game finally got away from Black River in the second half. The Pirates forced three-and-outs on the first two defensive possessions, but Cummins took an innocent-looking slot receiver swing screen and went 69 yards down the sideline to make the score 16-0 with 6:49 left in the third quarter.
Baumoel found paydirt from 3 yards as a power-I fullback only 2:39 later — Tee Rupp’s second interception of Black River’s Mike Hazlett set up a short field — and Cameron Ruffin completed the scoring by getting behind the defense on a seam route for a 67-yard TD with 7:38 remaining in the game.
Murphy finished 15-for-24 for 273 yards, but the Crusaders had only 207 yards on 54 plays when the long touchdowns were factored out.
It was hard to fault the Black River defense when the Pirates offense kept giving Central Catholic short fields to work with.
“That’s what happens when you keep running down the line,” Young said. “Eventually, you’re going to run into somebody that’s pretty good against what you do and they can stop it.”
The Pirates were satisfied with a season that put the program back on the map. They went 4-6 in each of the last two years and appeared headed toward another disappointment this fall with a 4-3 record, but rattled off four straight wins and got their first playoff victory in five years.
Black River also posted two of the highest scoring (35.9) and rushing (372.5) averages in its illustrious history, and the defense led Medina County with 94 tackles for loss, 10 interceptions and 44 pass breakups.
The Pirates already are looking forward to battling archrival Buckeye for the 2017 Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division championship.
“The only thing I can say is I’m proud of the seniors,” said Haswell, a junior. “They’ve fought through so much, and to see them get to this point and to see them fight — as you can tell, I’m tearing up right now because they put so much emotion out there — they established great leadership.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or email@example.com.