The Minster Wildcats saved their season with a critical defensive stop and game winning fourth quarter drive, advancing to the state championship game for the second time in three years and third time in school history.
Wapakoneta – The Minster Wildcats run through the Ohio High School Athletic Association playoffs can be described a lot of ways.
Implausible. Improbable. Hard to believe. But not impossible.
The Wildcats turned the improbable into reality Saturday night at chilly Harmon Field, scoring late in the fourth quarter to dump McComb 27-23 in the D-VII state semifinals. The Wildcats will take a 10-4 record into the championship game Saturday morning at 10am against the 12-1 Warren John F Kennedy Eagles at Ohio Stadium.
“I love our kids, man,” said a relieved Wildcats coach Geron Stokes. “We came out on fire, and we knew they were going to battle back, because they are a really good team. We were on the ropes a little bit, but they responded like the tough kids they are. They made plays. They just kept fighting. It wasn’t perfect, but we’re going back to the ‘Shoe.”
If there are still doubters about this bunch of Wildcats, let me assure you: they do indeed belong among the state’s elite.
The Wildcats story has been well documented. After a 2-0 start, Minster lost four straight, and gave up 154 points doing it. Then in week 7, they did the unthinkable, snapping Coldwater’s 29 game winning streak. As someone said in the press box Saturday night, “something clicked when they beat Coldwater.”
The Wildcats haven’t lost since.
Saturday’s semifinal game started as though there would be little drama. The Wildcats held 12-1 McComb, a team averaging 42 points a game, to 6 YARDS in the first quarter. Junior quarterback Jared Huelsman scored on a 14 yard run late in the first quarter to put the Wildcats in front, then picked off a pass and ran it back 37 yards for a score on the next play from the scrimmage. Fourteen points in 19 seconds put the Cats in control 14-0 after 1.
The next time the ‘Cats had the ball, they went 79 yards in 13 plays, capped by Huelsman’s 19-yard strike to Jonathon Niemeyer. Minster led 21-0 midway through the second quarter, and the huge Minster crowd was ready to celebrate.
A little prematurely, as it turned out.
The Panthers drove 63 yards in 9 plays and got on the board on a 2 yard run by Caden Schroeder. After Huelsman threw an interception for his only mistake of the night, McComb went 80 yards in 9 plays, and Tanner Schroeder booted a 24 yard field goal with 2 seconds to spare in the half. That made it 21-9 at the break.
The third quarter belonged to McComb. On their third play of the half, quarterback Malachi Abbott, who ran for 111 yards and threw for 160 more, found Graham LaRue wide open on the left side. LaRue out-ran the Minster secondary for a 56-yard scoring play, this time the two-point conversion was good, and the Wildcats lead was down to 21-17.
While Minster was going three and out on all three of its third quarter possessions, McComb took the lead the next time they had the ball. The Panthers went 77 yards in 12 plays, all on the ground, and Caden Schroeder scored for the second time to make it 23-21 Panthers.
“Tough teams take that punch and fight back,” Stokes said. “That’s exactly what we want. We threw the first punch, but we knew they would punch back. And our kids responded. They just went out and made plays. I love our seniors. They are a great group of kids that care about doing this the right way.”
The Panthers appeared to be headed for the clinching score midway through the fourth quarter when they drove to the Minster 22. On fourth and six, Abbott kept around right end. Minster junior linebacker Jeremy Kauffman met him head-on, and made the defensive play of the game, stopping Abbott a yard shy of the first down. Minster ball!
That play seemed to stir the dormant Minster offense. Senior Bryce Schmiesing, who ran for 56 bruising yards and caught 6 passes for 40 more, got loose on a swing pass in the right flat for 23 yards to set up Huelsman’s third TD of the night, a 5-yard run with 4:02 remaining.
“Just execute,” Huelsman said of the game winning drive. “Do what we do. Everyone just do your job and things will work out, and they did.”
Schmiesing had a simple explanation for one of the biggest plays of the night.
“We practice that play a lot,” he said with a grin. “My offensive line did a great job of blocking for me, and I was able to get a big gain.
“We really wanted to go back and play for another title,” he continued. “We knew it was going to be a tough game. It’s week 14 and we knew they would keep battling. Coach had us prepared and we got the job done.”
Alex Lehmkuhl’s leaping interception of an Abbott pass with three minutes left ended the Panthers final chance, and gave the Wildcat fans a chance to celebrate for real this time.
“The game really resembled our season,” explained Stokes. “The more adversity you see the tougher you are going to become if you handle it the right way. Our kids do that every day in practice, every day in the weight room. We started 2-4 and they did a great job responding, just like they did tonight.
“To be honest with you, we practice so well, that you are going to get better when you work that hard. I don’t care what you’re doing. If you work that hard, you may struggle for a bit, but when you work as hard as these kids work, they are going to be alright. They teach me something new every single day. It’s really cool to see.”
“This is crazy,” said Huelsman, who ran for 69 yards and was 14 for 25 through the air for 123 yards and accounted for four touchdowns. “To start 2-0 and then lose four straight, and to be where we are now, there isn’t a better feeling in the world.
“Coach always says ‘So what, now what. He always tells us to just keep fighting. No matter what. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy because that’s a great team. But we just kept fighting, and it paid off for us.”
Stokes said the Wildcats experience of winning the title two years ago will benefit them on Saturday.
“We have been there. You’ve seen it, you’ve walked in there, you’ve experienced how big that place is. And it’s still football. The field is 100 yards long there like everywhere else. We just need to go have a great week of practice and get ready to play.
“Our kids deserve this,” Stokes concluded. “I am a big believer that you get what you deserve. They have out-worked people and forced themselves to grow where some people are too soft to grow. They have done a great job at leadership, and I am really, really proud of our kids.”