NELSONVILE — The Liberty Union Lions needed every second, every yard, and every ounce of guts in their body to survive a nail bitter in front of 1,680 screaming fans.
The Lions (10-2) came up with two huge defensive plays late in the game to survive the Oak Hill Oaks’ (9-3) balanced attack and came out victorious, 22-21, in the Division V, Region 19 semifinal matchup.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our kids,” Oak Hill coach Nathan Dugan said.
The victory puts the Liberty Union Lions in the “Elite Eight” regional final against the No. 1 seed Valley Indians next Saturday, who defeated Bucyrus Wynford at Reynoldsburg High School, 21-9. The site is still yet to be determined will be announced by the OHSAA later today.
Mixing it up in the first half on the ground and through the air, Oak Hill took command early.
After both teams exchanged possessions to start the game the Oaks backfield of Wes Harden and Devon Davis carried the workload.
On the second possession for Oak Hill, Davis and Harden accounted for seven of the eight plays for 21 yards. Harden capped off the 8-play, 40-yard drive with a 2-yard rushing touchdown with 5:40 in the first quarter, giving the Oaks a 7-0 lead.
“I put 44 and 34 on the board before the season and said 70 percent of our offense has to come from those guys and they put us on their back,” Dugan said. “The leadership they’ve had this season is indescribable and it is something I am eternally grateful for.”
Harden and Davis combined for 148 rushing yards on 37 carries and one touchdown for the game.
After both teams traded defensive stops once more, the Lions took over on their own 31-yard line. Liberty Union wasted no time in taking the ball down the field and after being stopped on a 4th-and-8, kicker Chase Runyon put the Lions on the board.
Runyon kicked a 29-yard field goal with 11:19 remaining in the half, cutting the Oaks lead to 7-3.
The momentum for the Lions continued. With Oak Hill once again driving down the field, Harden was stuffed on a 4th-and-2 on what appeared to be a first down, handing the ball back to the Lions.
On the following drive, Liberty Union drove the ball down the field in 12-plays and got inside the Oaks 20.
However, the biggest defensive stop of the game to that point came for Oak Hill. With Liberty Union looking to take the lead, the Oaks came up with back-to-back sacks, preventing Liberty Union from scoring.
With less than two minutes remaining in the half, the unexpected happened.
Leading 7-3 in what was a stagnant first half, the fans saw both teams score in 33 seconds, giving the stadium a jolt of energy.
Oak Hill’s starting quarterback, Drew Haislop showcased his strong arm starting a two minute drill. Wide receiver Luke Hammond, who proved to be Haislop’s favorite target on the evening, found him twice for a quick 59 yards.
“We had a different style of offense this year and Drew become a very good quarterback,” Dugan said. “He had over 1,000 yards passing this year and if anyone told me that then I would’ve been skeptical but he did a great job.”
From the first play from scrimmage Haislop found Hammond cutting in the middle of the field and placed the ball over the outstretched arms of a Lions defender for a 23-yard reception.
Hammond finished the game with 169 yards on seven receptions for two scores.
The play setup the Oaks touchdown, with the clock under one minute, Haislop dropped back once more to find Hammond again running to the post. The two connected for 36 yards and gave Oak Hill a 14-3 lead with 33 seconds left in the half.
However, after a short kickoff from the Oaks, Liberty Union took advantage and played a little of their own two minute drill.
Starting on their own 45-yard-line, the Lions needed only four plays and 23 seconds to answer the Oak Hill score.
With time running down, starting quarterback Austin Vannatta found a wide open Justin Reeves for a 28-yard touchdown pass, cutting the Oaks lead to 14-9 after a missed extra point attempt.
Oak Hill entered halftime leading 14-9.
The two teams were held to a total of 248 total yards of offense in the first half. Oak Hills starting backfield was held to 66 yards on 21 carries and the Lions were held to 42 total rushing yards on eight attempts.
It didn’t take long for Liberty Union to do something that they haven’t done the entire game, take the lead.
After receiving the ball to start the second half, the Lions took the ball down the field as Jacob Basso carried most of the workload. It wasn’t until 9:09 remaining in the third quarter that Basso finally crossed the pylon, giving Liberty Union a 16-14 advantage.
Basso finished with a game high of 140 rushing yards on 21 carries for two touchdowns.
However, that lead was quickly vanished as Oak Hill responded to the pressure. Midway through the third quarter it was Harden and Davis again carrying the ball down the field for the Oaks.
Oak Hill then mixed it up once more and went to the air, proving to be a smart decision. Haislop who found Hammond three times for 64 yards in the first half found him once more.
On the Lions 10-yard-line Haislop dropped back and looked to his right finding Hammond through a tight window of defenders as he fell into the end zone. It was Haislop’s second passing touchdown of the evening to Hammond which gave the Oaks a 21-16 lead with 4:36 left in the third quarter.
“They kept fighting and they played with a lot of pride and heart and that is something I think that shows what type of class of people we have,” Dugan said.
Already with two lead changes in the second half, Liberty Union was not finished.
The Lions placed the ball all over the field for an 8-play, 62-yard drive before seeing Basso break through the offensive line for a 2-yard touchdown run, giving Liberty Union a 22-21 lead with 10:31 left in the game.
“It came down to stopping their running back and he made some plays and we needed to shut him down and he was an excellent athlete,” Dugan said.
However, with Oak Hill again driving down the field, the Lions needed something to prevent a fourth lead change in the half.
The Oaks got the ball within the Liberty Union’s 10-yard line and looked as if they were going to take the lead once more. But on a 4th-and-7, the Oaks had no choice but to kick the field goal.
With 7:04 remaining in the game, Clayton Christenson lined up for a 27-yard field goal. Down one the Lions defensive line broke through and blocked the field goal attempt, coming up with a huge stop and keeping a 22-21 lead.
Leading 22-21 with less than four minutes left in the game Liberty Union’s defense once again came up with a huge play. Facing a 4th-and-10 on their own territory, Haislop dropped back and looked for Hammond again.
This time the ball found the arms of a Lions defensive back’s arms, giving the ball back to Liberty Union with 3:36 left in the game.
However, after another defensive stop from Oak Hill, Liberty Union punted the ball back to the Oaks with 2:47 left.
Oak Hill needed to take the ball 90 yards in less than three minutes to win the game. With their backs against the wall, Haislop looked to his favorite target all game long. Facing a 3rd-and-10 Haislop found Hammond for a first down.
“The seniors that we have are just a class of individuals that I hope I have every year because they work hard,” Dugan said.
On the next play Haislop, who finished completing 12-of-31 passing attempts for 208 yards and two touchdowns, again connected with Hammond, this time into the Lions territory with under two minutes remaining.
But Haislop looked to Hammond one too many times as his final pass attempt was intercepted as Liberty Union survived a semifinal thrilling playoff game.
Liberty Union 0 9 7 6 22
Oak Hill 7 7 7 0 21
5:40 OH- Harden 2 run (Christenson kick) 7-0
11:19 LU- Runyon 29-yard field goal 7-3
:33 OH- Hammond 36 pass from Haislop (Christenson kick) 14-3
:10 LU- Reeves 28 pass from Vannatta (kick fail) 14-9
9:09 LU- Basso 6 run (Runyon kick) 14-16
4:36 OH- Hammond 10 pass from Haislop (Christenson kick) 21-16
10:31 LU- Basso 2 run (Pass fail) 21-22
Liberty Union Oak Hill
First Downs 12 16
Total Net Yards 219 359
Rushes-yards 22-147 39-151
Passing 72 208
Comp-Att-Int 12-18-0 12-31-2
Punts-yards 2-45 3-31
Fumbles-lost 2-0 0-0
Penelties-yards 3-22 7-77
PASSING: Oak Hill_ Haislop, 12-31-208-2, 2TD; Liberty Union_ Vannatto, 12-18-72, 1 TD
RUSHING: Oak Hill_ Davis, 16-78, Harden, 21-70-1, Stiltner, 2-3;Liberty Union_ Basso, 21-140-1, Magley, 1-7
RECEIVING: Oak Hill_ Hammond, 7-169-2, Cox, 4-34, Davis, 1-5; Liberty Union_ Runyon, 2-45