WHEELERSBURG — It all began, innocently enough, with an onside kick.
Turns out it was the kick-start that got the host Wheelersburg Pirates warmed up on a cold night — and off and literally running.
With Wheelersburg recovering an onside kick to open the second half, and the tide turning to the Pirates’ favor in the form of 242 second-half rushing yards, Saturday night’s much-anticipated rematch against the Minford Falcons went Wheelersburg’s way — with the Pirates going up and eventually holding on for a 28-23 Division V Region 19 quarterfinal victory inside Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg.
With the win, the Pirates extended their OHSAA regional quarterfinal winning streak to seven, as this is the eighth consecutive season in which Wheelersburg has not only competed in the playoffs — but also has hosted a regional quarterfinal.
The third-seeded Pirates and sixth-seed Falcons both entered at 7-3, but — largely thanks to Wheelersburg’s 21-20 overtime triumph over the host Falcons (7-4) on Oct. 4 — the Pirates (8-3) got the home game.
And, for the second time in a season against Minford — and for the fifth time in Wheelersburg head coach Rob Woodward’s dozen campaigns — the Pirates defeated the same squad in the regular season…AND in the playoffs.
In fact, the first time that happened was Woodward’s first season as head coach — against Minford in 2008 (14-7 in regular season and 14-6 in regional quarterfinals).
But for the Pirates, the plan is simple in November.
Just keep playing.
“We just want to be playing in week 12 and here we are. No matter whom it is against,” said Woodward. “We have guys that make big-time plays in big-time playoff games. In all three phases. We’ll take it. It’s playoff football. You just want to still be playing. We had some miscues in the first half, but we made some adjustments and reached into our toolbox to find some things that we could do differently. Our coaches communicated those with our kids and we were able to make some successful changes in the second half. Minford come in here very prepared, threw everything at us, gave us a tremendous battle. Our kids did enough of what they needed to do to ensure we came away with the win. We did some things that we recognized that were effective enough for us. We’ll go back and fix the things that we need to fix, but we’re still playing next week.”
And, next Saturday night to be exact, the Pirates play undefeated Ridgewood in a Region 19 semifinal — at 7 p.m. at Lancaster’s Fulton Field.
Early on, though, it appeared as if Minford — making its first playoff appearance since 2012 — might be the one advancing, as the Falcons forced a pair of Pirate punts and a turnover on downs while driving 10 plays over five minutes and eight seconds in the first quarter to lead 3-0 at halftime.
Matthew Risner made a 27-yard field goal with 3:38 remaining in the opening period, and that kick held up — as Braxton Sammons missed a 32-yard attempt for Wheelersburg with six-and-a-half seconds left in the first half.
But special teams indeed was a theme, and Wheelersburg was just getting kick-started.
Sammons made all four of his extra-point attempts, and the Pirates presumably put the game out of reach at 28-10 with only 3:53 remaining — after Wheelersburg recovered a Sammons squib kick at the Minford 19-yard-line following the Falcons fumbling the return.
“Braxton (Sammons) made all four extra points, did a great job kicking off, and we recovered two onside kicks. We’ll take recovering that squib kick at the 20 in the fourth quarter. We’re always trying to take advantage of things when we can,” said Woodward. “Playoff football is often won on special teams.”
Is was on Saturday night.
Following the Pirates’ collectively and Sammons individually executing the onside kick to start the second half, Wheelersburg went off for 242 rushing yards on 27 carries— scoring all 28 points in a matter of 20 minutes.
The Pirates attempted only a single second-half pass, but definitely didn’t need to throw, especially when Makya Matthews and quarterback Evan Horsley had their wheels working in the cold just fine.
After 11 carries for 40 yards in the opening half, Matthews erupted for 164 yards and a hat trick of touchdowns on 14 rushes in the second.
His two short scoring runs of six and seven yards came exactly 52 seconds apart in the fourth quarter, making it 28-10 for Wheelersburg’s largest lead.
Matthews amounted a massive 204 yards on 25 carries, as Horsley had 14 total carries for 93 yards — with eight tries for 64 yards in the second half.
Horsley’s one-yard dive to cap a 10-play, 80-yard, four-minute and 17-second scoring drive put the Pirates in front for good at 14-10.
Hunter Ruby rushed five times for 24 yards, as three kneel-downs in the victory formation at the end of the game gave Wheelersburg 318 rushing yards on 47 carries.
Horsley completed half of his eight passes for 38 yards, but it was Wheelersburg’s second-half ground assault which wore the Falcons out.
“I’ve always commended our guys on their ability to continue to play for four quarters and their conditioning that they work themselves through. This week was no different. It showed tonight,” said Woodward. “Our guys just kept cranking it up and playing at a high level, which is what we want. We always tell our guys to win it in the fourth quarter. Even if you’re struggling throughout, just continue to push and persevere and win it in the fourth.”
But the Pirates had to get kick-started first, which was on the onside kick to open the third.
Sammons calmly kicked the ball, hovered over it almost as it rolled the necessary 10 yards before being touched, and then the Pirates fell on it at the Falcon 47-yard-line.
Minford coach Jesse Ruby said his Falcons actually “expected” the onsider, but “unfortunately, we just didn’t recover it”.
“They did a nice job of not touching it in the first 10 yards. It slow-rolled and it let them get there and get a good recovery, he said.
The Pirates took immediate advantage, as Matthews — on the same back-to-back running play-call — dashed up the middle for nine yards, before bursting for 38 yards to the end zone only 39 seconds in.
Sammons made the extra point for the 7-3 Wheelersburg lead, as the Pirates then answered a quick Minford score with their second touchdown that featured five carries apiece by Matthews and Horsley.
Minford, meanwhile, moved the ball as well — amassing 309 yards on 57 plays from scrimmage, with a balance of 35 rushes for 141 yards and Elijah Voglesong-Lewis completing 13-of-22 passes for 168 yards.
Ty Wiget, the Falcons’ senior standout running back who had 71 yards on 11 carries, had 41 of them on one run just a minute-and-a-half into the third quarter — from the Wheelersburg 44 all the way to the three.
Wiget then scored on the next play, as Minford’s 51-yard and 53-second scoring drive — with Risner’s extra-point kick — gave the Falcons a 10-7 advantage.
But other than that TD, and Voglesong-Lewis’ two short scoring runs within a minute of each other in the final two-and-a-half minutes to get the Falcons to within 28-23, Minford failed to put touchdowns on the board once inside the 25-yard line.
Coach Ruby said that Minford made mistakes that indeed impacted its performance.
“Self-inflicted mistakes, whether that’s a penalty or a missed assignment or a missed block or a missed tackle or taking a sack or dropping a catch, those situations certainly hurt,” he said. “They are just critical in a playoff atmosphere. It’s just unfortunate that we had a few. But every play matters. Offense, defense and special teams. It showed tonight in all three phases. Every play tonight, every play against Wheelersburg this year had a pivotal role at some point in time.”
In the first quarter, a Voglesong-Lewis short-screen pass completion to Bryson Ashley for 33 yards moved the Falcons to the Pirate 10, but a fumble on the exchange two plays later stalled the drive — and forced the Falcons to kick the Risner field goal.
A full 12 minutes later, Minford moved as deep as the Pirate 17, but a holding penalty pushed the Falcons back to the 28, as a Voglesong-Lewis pass on 4th-and-11 from the 23 into the end zone was dropped.
Both of those first-half drives were 10 plays, as — trailing 14-10 — the Falcons drove eight plays and as deep as the Wheelersburg 22.
But on 3rd-down-and-8, the Pirates sacked Voglesong-Lewis for a 13-yard loss, resulting in a punt which Minford misjudged in an attempt to down it near the goal-line.
Wheelersburg then went three-and-out, and a Risner return to the Pirate 46 set shop up for the Falcons at the outset of the fourth quarter.
Minford moved nine plays in three minutes and five seconds to the 14, but three straight incompletions — and a two-yard gain on 4th-down by Voglesong-Lewis — left it empty-handed again.
The Pirate defense did bend at times, but it definitely didn’t break.
“They got down towards the red zone, and we bowed our backs. We stopped them a couple times on fourth down, we forced a punt, we forced a field goal. Some huge defensive plays down in the red zone that we needed to make,” said Woodward. “Those all add up in a big playoff game like this.”
Voglesong-Lewis led the Falcons with 18 carries for 61 yards, as Risner recorded eight receptions for 106 yards — while rushing four times for 10.
Meanwhile, more of Matthews and Horsley had the Pirates up 21-10 with 4:45 remaining, as Wheelersburg drove 88 yards in only eight plays in four-and-a-half minutes with Matthews scoring from six yards out.
After the Pirates recovered the ensuing Sammons squib-kick kickoff, Ruby ran a jet sweep for 12 yards to the seven, as Matthews covered those final seven yards to make it 28-10 just 52 seconds later.
“We just mishandled that ball. We had a couple of guys with an opportunity to get it, and every time we jumped on the ball, it squirted out and their guys were able to make a play and get on it,” said Coach Ruby.
Minford made the final 3:39 interesting, though, as Risner’s return of 50 yards of the ensuing kickoff and pass completion to him for 21 set up Voglesong-Lewis’ six-yard run at the two-and-a-half minute mark.
Risner made the extra point for the 11-point deficit (28-17), as the Falcons then executed and recovered an onside kick of their own — and were right back at midfield.
Another Voglesong-Lewis completion to Risner, this one for 34 yards, quickly moved Minford to the Wheelersburg three-yard-line — as Voglesong-Lewis ran in again three plays later with a minute-and-a-half remaining.
But the Falcons failed on the two-point conversion pass attempt, and after another Falcon onside kick which Wheelersburg recovered, Minford’s comeback bid was officially over — as well as its comeback season.
“I thought our kids played hard and well throughout the whole game, but Wheelersburg made some key plays in the second half. When you are down 28-10 and there’s three minutes to go, you can see a team just easily lay down and give up. I was very proud of our kids for coming back and showing resiliency, making a big play, getting in the end zone, recovering an onside kick and getting back in the end zone again in that short amount of time,” said Coach Ruby. “We had two touchdowns there in a minute. Their effort all night was great.”
Minford started last season 6-0, then lost the final four games to fall out of playoff contention.
The Falcons were on a similar slide this year, having lost two of three after opening 5-0 — and sitting one spot out of the playoffs prior to their regular-season finale against Valley.
But Minford shut out Valley, and Waverly won at Oak Hill, thus propelling the Falcons into the Region 19 quarterfinals.
Minford will graduate and say goodbye to 15 seniors, as Ruby said the group was “very good”.
“These seniors were huge to this team this year. I’ve been head coach for four years, so I’ve had them all since they were freshmen,”he said. “Just to see their attitude and leadership and work ethic over the last four years get better and better, they will be missed. They’ve worked hard to try and improve our program. They’ve carried themselves so well throughout this whole season.”
For the Pirates, they play on against second-seeded Ridgewood, whom Woodward and Wheelersburg are quite familiar with.
“We’ve played them in the past. Coach (John) Slusser and I know one another well,” said the coach. “He has a quality good football team and program. It’s going to be a battle.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 28, Minford 23
Minford 3 0 7 13 — 23
Wheelersburg 0 0 14 14 — 28
M — Matthew Risner, 27-yard field goal, 3:38, 1st (3-0 M)
W — Makya Matthews, 38-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 11:21, 3rd (7-3 W)
M — Ty Wiget, 3-yard run (Matthew Risner kick), 10:26, 3rd (10-7 M)
W — Evan Horsley, 1-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 6:09, 3rd (14-10 W)
W — Makya Matthews, 6-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 4:45, 4th (21-10 W)
W — Makya Matthews, 7-yard run (Braxton Sammons kick), 3:53, 4th (28-10 W)
M — Elijah Voglesong-Lewis, 6-yard run (Matthew Risner kick), 2:33, 4th (28-17 W)
M — Elijah Voglesong-Lewis, 3-yard run (pass failed), 1:29, 4th (28-23 W)
First downs 15 17
Plays from scrimmage 57 55
Rushes-yards 35-141 47-318
Passing yards 168 38
Total yards 309 356
Cmp-Att-Int. 13-22-0 4-8-0
Fumbles-lost 3-1 0-0
Penalties-yards 6-56 8-90
Punts-average 2-36 3-31.7
RUSHING —Minford: Elijah Voglesong-Lewis 18-61 2TD, Ty Wiget 11-71, Matthew Risner 4-10, Timmy Walk 1-1, Team 1-(-2); Wheelersburg: Makya Matthews 25-204 3TD, Evan Horsley 14-93 TD, Hunter Ruby 5-24, Team 3-(-3)
PASSING — Minford: Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis 13-22-0-168; Wheelersburg: Evan Horsley 4-8-0-38
RECEIVING — Minford: Matthew Risner 8-106, Bryson Ashley 2-46, Drew Skaggs 2-11, Ty Wiget 1-5 ; Wheelersburg: Eli Swords 2-26, Makya Matthews 1-8, Hunter Ruby 1-4
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved