PDT Sports Editor
WHEELERSBURG — Never short on effort, the No. 3 Wheelersburg Pirates (8-3) fell to the visiting No. 6 Baltimore Liberty Union Lions (9-3) Saturday in a rain-drenched Division V, Region 19 Quarterfinal.
A stagnant rushing attack, seven-point halftime deficit and a trio of second half turnovers befell Pirates on their return to the postseason after one season away.
“I’m extremely proud of the effort. They kept fighting but we just didn’t do enough to win the game,” Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward said. “Hats off to the Lions, they did a tremendous job.”
Liberty Union’s first drive of the game came down to a 4th-and-1 rushing attempt at the Wheelersburg 36 that was stuffed by Wheelersburg’s Zach Cunningham for a negligible gain, forcing a turnover on downs.
Wheelersburg’s offense responded to the defense’s effort with an 15-play, 64-yard scoring drive that featured two fourth down conversions. The second came on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Eddie Miller to Tyler Claxon. The extra point by Dylan Miller made it 7-0 Wheelersburg with 1:57 remaining in the first quarter.
The Lions responded with a lengthy drive of their own, spanning 67 yards over 11 plays and ending with a 7-yard Jacob Basso touchdown rush. The game was knotted at seven after Chase Runyon’s extra point with 8:55 remaining in the first half.
“They stayed very simple, very basic and were able to pick up yardage and first downs when they needed it and we weren’t able to,” Woodward said.
Wheelersburg’s subsequent drive appeared to have promise after a third down conversion, but three-straight incompletions put Dylan Miller in punt formation. Rolling the dice, the Pirates ran a fake punt and Dylan Miller’s pass for Eddie Miller fell incomplete.
With a short field to maneuver, Liberty Union drove 48 yards and scored on an Austin Vannatta quarterback sneak to give the Lions a 13-7 lead. The extra point made it 14-7 with 1:06 remaining before the intermission.
Wheelersburg’s next drive was brief, using only 21 seconds and Liberty Union found themselves with the ball at their own 39-yard-line and time to work. However, a bad snap resulted in a big loss for the Lions and the first half clock hit zeroes.
Wheelersburg could only manage nine rushing yards in the first half compared to Liberty Union’s 99. The Lions out-gained the Pirates 157-89 in the first act.
While the opening half was turnover-free and featured only one penalty, the latter half was a lesson in turnover ratio importance and disciplined play. Wheelersburg gave the ball away three times and the teams combined for 10 flags.
“We have to get a lot better to compete at the level we were competing in. A lot better,” Woodward said.
The Pirates received the half-opening kickoff and converted yet another fourth down, moving the ball to the Lions’ 41. But an Eddie Miller interception at the 15-yard-line by Drake Graff ended the march.
Wheelersburg’s Michael Staggs erased the mistake with an 11-yard sack of Vannatta that derailed Liberty Union’s drive.
When the ‘Burg offense returned to the field yardage was hard to come by. The Pirates punted back to the Lions and 10-plays later Liberty Union’s lead was stretched to 17-7 on a chip shot field goal by Runyon with five seconds left in the third quarter.
Liberty Union forced its second turnover of the night and expanded its lead when Greg Underwood snatched a bobbled ball away from a Wheelersburg receiver and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown. The extra point made it 24-7 with 11:11 to play in the game.
Eddie Miller’s next passing attempt, which came on the first offensive play since the pick-6, was intercepted again by Underwood and returned to the Liberty Union 42.
The Lions moved backwards after a series of penalties and Wheelersburg found the right rhythm on their next drive after the punt.
The Pirates collected five first downs over their 92-yard scoring march that ended in an Eddie Miller touchdown rush from eight yards out. The 2-point conversion attempt failed and with 5:53 remaining in Wheeelersburg’s season, the score was 24-13.
The onside kick recovery attempt failed following the touchdown, but the ‘Burg defense, which played very well in the second half, forced the Lions to punt with 4:47 to play.
After using his last two timeouts to save clock, Woodward needed his offense to span 78 yards very quickly in order to have a chance. The Pirates made it to the 16-yard-line of the Lions but a 4th-and-11 pass from Eddie Miller fell incomplete with 2:05 remaining in the game.
From there Liberty Union used three straight runs, a penalty on Wheelersburg and a quarterback kneel to seal the win.
Liberty Union advances to play No. 2 Oak Hill Next Saturday in a Division V, Region 19 semifinal. The Oaks defeated No. 7 Jeromesville Hillsdale 29-26.
Wheelersburg graduates 11 seniors from the 2012 squad. Woodward said the progress from his young men since they joined the program has been remarkable.
“From Week 1 in August until today, I have seen so much growth out of them,” Woodward said. “Going back to their freshman year when they battled through their younger years, they have done a tremendous job to have a successful season.”
The Pirates would have liked to see their season continue against an SOC team in Oak Hill, but an 8-3 record with a playoff appearance shows the program is healthy going forward. Quarterback Eddie Miller, who broke the school’s all-time passing yardage and passing touchdown records, returns as well as a host of other key players.
“You never know what to expect from a season. Our expectations are always high,” Woodward said. “We definitely put together a winning season but we came up short in some big situations. We needed to hunker down and make the play to be a great team.”
Bob Strickley can be reached at 353-3101, ext. 298, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
LU 0 14 3 7 - 24
BURG 7 0 0 6 - 13
01:57 BURG - Tyler Claxon 21 yd pass from Eddie Miller (Dylan Miller kick), 15-64 5:24 0 - 7
08:55 LU - Jacob Basso 7 yd run (Chase Runyon kick), 11-67 4:55 7 - 7
01:06 LU - Austin Vannata 1 yd run (Chase Runyon kick), 10-52 5:11 14 - 7
00:05 LU - Chase Runyon 20 yd field goal, 10-75 4:33 17 - 7
11:11 LU - 29 42 yd interception return (Chase Runyon kick) 24 - 7
05:53 BURG - Eddie Miller 9 yd run (Dylan Miller kick failed), 15-92 3:34 24 - 13
Score 24 13
FIRST DOWNS 12 18
RUSHES-YARDS (NET) 47-122 15-21
PASSING YDS (NET) 121 222
Passes Att-Comp-Int 8-6-0 52-27-3
TOTAL OFFENSE PLAYS-YARDS 55-243 67-243
Fumble Returns-Yards 0-0 0-0
Punt Returns-Yards 2-17 1-1
Kickoff Returns-Yards 2-32 4-78
Interception Returns-Yards 3-42 0-0
Punts (Number-Avg) 3-38.0 2-31.5
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 7-40 3-28
Possession Time 27:00 21:00
Third-Down Conversions 5 of 13 5 of 16
Fourth-Down Conversions 2 of 3 5 of 7
Red-Zone Scores-Chances 3-3 2-3
Rushing: LU - J. Basso 27-105, A Snyder 10-35, J. Shirey 2-3, K. Weaver 3-2, A. Vannatta 5-(-23), BURG - E. Miller 11-23, A. Cowgill 3-3, T. Claxon 1-(-5)
Passing: LU - A. Vannatta 6-7 121, A. Snyder 0-1, BURG - E. Miller 27-50 222, D. Miller 0-1
Receiving: LU J. Reeves 3-22, J. Basso 2-91, D. Chipukaizer 1-8, BURG - D. Miller 9-68, T. Claxon 8-70, A. Cowgill 4-37, B. Acree 2-17, R. Pyles 2-10, M. McAlister 1-13, A. May 1-7