Through the final three quarters of the 2014 Northern Frontier Football League championship game, the Kentucky Warriors outscored the Cincinnati Hawks 23-20. Unfortunately, they dug themselves into quite a hole in the first 15 minutes.
Behind a 73-yard touchdown pass and a 35-yard run, the Cincinnati Hawks (12-1) jumped out to an early 21-0 advantage and never looked back. Though the Warriors (11-2) fought back to give themselves a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter, they could not find the end zone as the Hawks took their second straight NFFL Championship 34-23.
“Everyone stuck together and they gave it their all,” Warriors head coach Jamie Rice said.
The Hawks took control of the game almost immediately. With their first play from scrimmage, quarterback Antonio Davis took advantage of a Warrior defensive breakdown and found receiver Ronsa Harrison for a long touchdown pass to give the Hawks an early 7-0 lead. Davis then capped off a 9-play, 60-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass a few possessions later. Before the Warriors knew what hit them, they were down 14-0.
On top of that, the Warriors offense could not seem to get anything going in the first quarter. Knowing Kentucky would use the run to set up the pass, the Hawks stacked the box and prevented the Warriors from establishing any sort of rhythm in the first quarter. When the Hawks Will McGivens scored on a 35-yard touchdown run in the beginning of the second quarter to make it 21-0, Rice knew he had to throw out the game plan.
“We put in a five-wide offense, and we ended up running that a lot more than I wanted to,” he said. “There’s not a part of the playbook we didn’t open up.”
Surprised by the new look from the Warriors, the Hawks allowed two quick Jonathon Schweickart touchdown passes before the half, one to receiver Jermaine Payton, the other to receiver Michael Weber. The defense held, and Kentucky went into the locker room down just one touchdown.
But in the second half, the Hawks adjusted to the Warriors’ new look. Now completely one-dimensional, Kentucky’s offense again struggled to get anything going.
“We caught them off-guard, and they made some adjustments and pinned their ears back and came after us a little bit,” Rice said. “We had to get out of our comfort zone a little bit.”
Just before the end of the third quarter, Davis led the Hawk offense on a 3:00, 55-yard drive capped off a by a Tyrrone Berry touchdown run. Just like that, the Warrior were in trouble once again.
But Kentucky had a few tricks up their sleeve.
With eight minutes remaining in the game, Mallory found Weber for a 30-yard touchdown on a trick-play double pass. When the Warriors’ recovered Mark Dheel’s onside kick, they seemed destined for a comeback.
But, it was not to be. The Warrior offense stalled and was forced to punt. Desperate to get the ball back, Kentucky was forced to get aggressive on defense, and the Hawks took advantage. McGiven scored on a 34-yard run with four minutes remaining to clinch the championship.
“They did awesome. They didn’t give up, we never gave up all the way through,” Rice said. “I’d give our effort a 100 percent, I’d give it an A+. Our execution? not so much.”
The Hawks were able to out gain the Warriors on offense 417 to 170, including 225 yards on the ground.
“Their offensive line did a really good job,” Rice said. “We had to commit quite a few guys to the run, and that slowed down the pass rush quite a bit.”
The loss in the championship game will most likely mark the final game in a Warriors uniforms for receivers Michael Weber and David Mallory, offensive lineman Jeremy Maxie and linebacker Shawn Ziegler, all of whom will retire or move away from the area. But Rice is excited about his core of players that will be returning in 2015.
“I saw some things out of our guys that makes 2015 a real positive. We’ll definitely be able to make a run at it again,” Rice said.
“We’re already into recruiting for next year. We’ll get the best players we can and coach them up. You’ll see next season, there will be some new faces.”
Saturday’s championship also marked the final game the Kentucky Warriors will ever play. Before kickoff, team owner Ricky Witt announced the that the franchise would be re-branded as the Portsmouth Warriors beginning in the 2015 season.
“It just makes sense, all of our community projects, all of our support, and all of our press coverage is coming from the Portsmouth area, I’m excited for the change, and we will bring Portsmouth a successful minor league football system that Portsmouth football fans can finally call their own,” Witt said on Facebook Saturday night.
The team also unveiled a new logo and word mark that will debut for next season.
“We’ve always embraced Portsmouth, obviously,” Rice said. “It’s a great place. I told Ricky I thought it was a great idea. We’re a Portsmouth team, and we always have been.”
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter