While there was no rain and no thunder at Memorial Stadium in Sidney Friday night, there was plenty of lightning – on the field, not over it – as the defending champs survived Lehman’s determined upset bid in the season opener.
Sidney – Heading into the season opener at 30-and-0 Field, the Lehman Cavaliers and Fort Recovery Indians had two vastly different histories on opening night.
The Indians, of course, are the defending D-VII state champions. But as recently as three years ago, Fort Recovery was coming off back to back 3-7 seasons and hadn’t had a winning record since before 2002. The oddity: the Indians had won 12 of their last 14 season openers.
The Cavaliers, on the other hand, had compiled a 78-39 record in coach Dick Roll’s ten seasons at the helm. Twice they had been one game away from making the state championship game, and two other times fell in the regional finals. Their oddity: Not one of Roll’s wins at Lehman has come on opening night. NOT ONE!
The Cavaliers almost stopped that streak with the biggest of surprises Friday night. ALMOST!
Will Homan scored from one yard out with 7:06 remaining in the game, and the Fort Recovery defense made big plays when it counted to secure a 21-20 victory, handing Lehman it’ 14th straight opening night loss.
“We faced some adversity tonight,” said a relieved Fort Recovery coach Brent Niekamp. “They were experienced in some areas where we weren’t and took advantage of that. We had some young guys get their eyes opened early, but we didn’t panic and just kept playing. This is a very good win for us against a very good team.”
“We’re happy,” Roll said outside the Cavaliers locker-room. “We never want to lose, but our kids played hard, and we had some young guys do some good things for us. It was a very positive game for us.”
Lehman jumped on the Indians right out of the locker-room.
After a kickoff return to the Lehman 29, Jake Earhart ran for 21 yards on first down. On the following play, sophomore quarterback Elliott Gilardi read the defense perfectly and scampered 50 yards for a touchdown on his first varsity carry. Thirty-six seconds into the season, Lehman led 7-0.
After the Indians turned the ball over on downs deep in Lehman territory, the Cavaliers put together an impressive 12 play drive from their own 20 to the Recovery 16. There the Indians defense held, and Michael Denning, just a sophomore, kicked a 33 yard field goal to make it 10-0.
“I think some of the guys thought they wouldn’t be able to play with us,” said Caleb Martin, the Indians senior quarterback who completed 13 of 24 throws for 193 yards and two scores, along with one pick. “At halftime, we said ‘Man, they’re good.’ We knew we had to pick things up in the second half, and that’s what we did.”
The Indians began to get their sea legs after the Denning field goal, getting on the board with 17 seconds left in the quarter on Martin’s 20-yard scoring pass to Payton Jutte. After yielding 135 yards on Lehman’s first two possessions, the defense settled down and gave up just 70 yards on the Cavs final four first-half possessions.
Lehman missed a huge chance late in the first half. Cameron Lee intercepted a Martin pass and returned it to the Recovery 26. The Cavaliers could not capitalize, however, and Denning missed a field goal attempt.
The Indians did take advantage then, rolling 80 yards in 7 plays to take the lead at the break. Homan had a 21 yard run in that drive, and Martin hit Jutte with a 32 yard strike to set up his 8 yard scoring pass to Jason Roessner with 17 seconds left in the half. Martin threw to Homan for the two-point conversion, and Recovery led 14-10 at the break.
Lehman’s defense had its own moment to shine after a nine-yard punt gave the Indians possession at the Cavalier 20 early in the third quarter. Three plays went nowhere, and Martin’s fourth down pass fell incomplete.
Lehman then went 80 yards in 9 plays for the go-ahead score, capping the drive with Gilardi’s 24-yard pass to Dylan Arnold, who made a spectacular finger-tip grab and danced into the end zone. The Indians then botched a short kick-off and Lehman appeared ready to take control when they recovered at the Indian 31.
Gilardi found Seth Brown for a 28-yard gain on fourth and ten, and the Cavs had a first and goal at the 2. Three running plays went less than nowhere, and Denning kicked his second three-pointer of the night to give Lehman a 20-14 lead with 7:06 to play.
At that point, the Indians did what champions do: they answered. Fifty eight yards in 7 plays capped by Homan’s score, and then, with Lehman on the march, they forced the Cavaliers’ only turnover of the night, a fumble in Indians territory with 3:38 remaining. Behind the efforts of Homan, the Indians strung together enough first downs to run out the clock and open the 2016 season with a win.
That goal-line stand was big,” Roll acknowledged. “ But we just needed to make a couple of stops. And then we are driving the ball, and we had that fumble. We had our chances.”
“Martin and Homan are really special players,” praised Niekamp. “They are great leaders. The good thing about tonight was that we had some young guys step and make plays for us. That was nice to see and we needed every one of them.”
“Our defense was lights out in the second half,” Martin said. “That goal line-stand in the fourth kept us in the game and really turned the momentum. Our offensive line did a great job all night, both giving me time to throw and giving us room to run.”
“We really wanted to make them beat us with the pass,” Roll explained. “We knew that Homan is a great back and we really had to focus on him to keep him under control. And for the most part, we did. But they have a lot of weapons and know how to use them.”
Homan gained 114 yards on 20 carries with the one score, and had one carry of 20 yards and another of 21. He earned every one of those yards against a gang-tackling Cavalier defense.
There was a hint of controversy late. Many on the Lehman sideline thought the Cavalier fumble came after the Lehman back was on the ground. Roll didn’t take my bait.
Roll was extremely happy with the play of Gilardi, a 5-10, 150 pound sophomore, who completed 11 of 21 passes for 133 yards and ran for 111 more on 15 carries.
“He really played well. He made good decisions all night. I won’t say we were surprised by the way he played, but you never know when you put a youngster out there for the first time. And he couldn’t have had a better start than that touchdown run on his first carry.”
Martin knew his team was fortunate to get out of Sidney with a win.
“Hey, that’s a good team. We may very well see them again down the line, and if we do, we will have to play better than we did tonight. But a win is a win, and they are all good. We just have to take this and build on it and get ready for another tough opponent in Fort Loramie next week.”
Niekamp acknowledged that his team has a very large target on its back after winning it’s first state title last December.
“Sure we do. We knew after the playoff game last year (a 20-3 Fort Recovery win in the regional semifinals) that Lehman was going to be very good. You get tested in the MAC every week, and we have to be ready to play. This was a good learning experience for us. We didn’t play our best, but we played well when we had to. That’s what good teams do.”
As for Dick Roll and the Cavaliers, well, they have been here before.
“We’re happy,” he reiterated. “Happy with our effort, happy with the play of some of our young kids. Not happy with the result. You know, it’s been a long time since we won an opener (2002 over St Henry.) We’ll take this, learn from it, get ready for Minster next week, and see where we go from here.”