The Minford football team notched its first outright SOC II title since 2000 with a 28-21 victory over Valley in Minford on Friday.
"It's huge for our kids," Minford coach Brent Daniels said. "I'm especially proud of our kids. We couldn't have a better group of kids right now that deserve this. They deserve the respect and they've played their butts off for me this year so far."
The victory was special to the team, and its quarterback summed things up best as the celebration continued in Minford.
"Earlier (this season) I said beating Wheelersburg was the best feeling of my life, but this right here is the best feeling of my life," Aaron Oesch, who has started four years under center for the Falcons, said. "We came out of the gates and were just blasting everything. The second half, we started slowing down. But on that last drive, we showed so much heart. The team came together so well, it was just the greatest feeling of my entire life."
Oesch scored two of the Falcons' four touchdowns on the game, helping send the hometown fans home happy. It was Jacob Piguet, however, who brought them to their feet cheering for on the game's first play when he returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a score. Using that momentum, the Falcons jumped to a 21-0 halftime advantage.
It was the second time this season that Minford had taken the opening kickoff for a score at home, and the second time those seven points were the margin of victory.
"That was really the difference in the game," Daniels said. "That was a good job by J.P. and a really good job of our kids blocking. Any time you can take one to the house off the bat, it's just huge. It was huge."
Helping to keep the Falcon lead secure was Ray Bryan. The senior back totaled 100 of Minford's 200 rushing yards on 11 carries to lead all rushers.
"Valley was keeping a lot of players close (to the line of scrimmage)," he said. "But our line did a great job getting outside and blocking. That really opened things up."
Zach Utley closed the gap, sprinting eight yards to score and cut Minford's lead to 21-14 early in the fourth quarter. Two snaps later, Blake Yates picked off an Oesch pass, giving Valley possession again at Minford's 42. On the first play of the ensuing possession, however, the Indians lost 10 yards on an attempted double-reverse pass, starting a three-and-out series that shifted momentum back to Minford.
"It was a play we worked on," Valley coach Darren Crabtree said. "We thought we had the momentum and tried to tie the game up. It didn't work and took some of the wind out of our sails."
Minford took that momentum shift and ran with it — literally.
The Falcons marched 89 yards on the ensuing possession, all on the ground. On a third-and-one from the Valley 39, Bryan took the ball around the right end for 35 yards to set up Minford's last touchdown.
"We just had a great line out there," Bryan said. "Matt Gilliam was out there in front of me and I really was just going for the first down. But it opened up and I just took off."
Bryan rushed for 57 yards on three carries to lead Minford's march.
Valley responded with a quick march of its own as Utley went 4-for-5 passing, including an 11-yard scoring strike to Yates with 1:57 to play, bringing the Indians within seven.
On the ensuing kickoff, Valley's Evan Richard struck an onside kick that took the desired bounce off a Minford fingertip and into a mob of players. Emerging with the ball was Minford's Bryan.
The official initially signaled Valley ball, but corrected the error on his microphone, saying it was indeed Minford ball.
"It was just a mad scramble," Oesch said. "We had three or four guys on the ball. They had three or four guys on the ball. The ref said 'Minford ball. Minford ball.' but just pointed the wrong way... But Ray Bryan was able to come up with a great, great recovery and he just worked as hard as he could and he did a great job out there tonight."
The Falcons ran the clock out from there to secure their title.
The Indians, in defeat, settle for a third place SOC finish, two games behind Valley and one behind Wheelersburg in the conference standings.
"In the first half we played so bad. To come back and make a game of it in the second half is what we'll remember," Crabtree said. "I can't be more proud of the way we played in the second half of the ball game."
He saluted his rival for their season and accomplishment of winning the coveted golden football.
"Hats off to them for being league champs," Crabtree said. "They earned the victory tonight. It's a tough one for us to swallow but the kids from Minford just came out and won the ball game."
Friday was the last contest for 10 Valley seniors including Utley, Zach Bukiewicz, BJ Coleman and Joe Brickey.
Conversely, the Falcons wrapped up a playoff spot with the win, and a probable home game, but were looking to enjoy the accomplishment for now, then go to work later.
"We've got a home playoff game," Daniels said. "Who we play is who we play and we'll worry about that come this weekend. The main thing right now is that we won the SOC and we've got our community, who supported us great this year, we've got a home playoff game for them."
The Falcons will be in action next Friday, an opponent had not been determined at press time.
CHRIS DUNHAM can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Valley 0 0 7 14 — 21
Minford 14 7 0 7 – 28
M — Piguet 96 kickoff return (Hackworth kick) 11:47
M — Oesch 3 run (Hackworth kick) 1:56
M — Slone 2 run (Hackworth kick) 4:54
V — Keller 3 run (Richard kick) 3:33
V — Utley 8 run (Richard kick) 10:32
M — Oesch 1 run (Hackworth kick) 3:18
V — Yates 11 from Y Utley (Richard kick) 1:57
RUSHING — Valley — Utley 11-57, Keller 9-52, Yates 4-14, Shultz 1-7, Holcomb 6-4. Totals 31-134; Minford — Bryan 11-100, Slone 12-54, Oesch 12-31, McCormick 4-15. Totals 38-200.
PASSING — Valley — Utley 9-16-0 97, Yates 4-5-0 22; Minford — Oesch 2-5-1 37.
RECEIVING — Valley — Holcomb 4-48, Coleman 2-34, Bukiewicz 2-18, Yates 1-11, Garrett 1-7, Keller 3-1; Minford — Butcher 1-30, Bryan 1-7.
Records — Valley 7-3 (3-2); Minford 8-2 (5-0).