A key play by St. Ignatius late in the game proved to be the turning point.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
AKRON -- Sometimes it pays to be more lucky than good. Saturday night, the Cleveland St. Ignatius High football team was both.
Down 33-27 with six minutes left in the game, St. Ignatius faced a fourth-and-10 at the Harding 36-yard line. Wildcat quarterback Nate Szep hit tailback Carter Welo for 9 yards and Raider defensive back Prescott Burgess seemed to have Welo wrapped up, but Welo lost the ball, slithered out of the tackle and recovered the ball 6 yards ahead.
The Wildcats scored three plays later to take the lead and Harding never recovered, losing to Ignatius 40-33 in the Division I Region 1 final in front of 17,033 at the Akron Rubber Bowl. It was Harding's first playoff loss in school history.
"It's amazing how the game sometimes comes down to a single play that looms large," Harding coach Thom McDaniels said. "That one [Welo's fumble] loomed large. That was a huge momentum change."
Franzinger jells: Ryan Franzinger, filling in for injured Wildcat tailback John van der Oord, scored the final two touchdowns on runs of 10 and 23 yards to put the game away.
"That play was kind of a whirlwind," said Ignatius coach Chuck Kyle of Welo's fumble. "We've had a couple close losses this year and the kids can get easily discouraged, but they didn't. The whole team pulled together."
Kyle won his 12th regional title in 14 years, and his Wildcats advance to next Saturday's state semifinal against Massillon Washington.
Szep stars: Szep finished 14-of-35 for 220 yards and two interceptions. Franzinger had 10 carries for 68 yards and three touchdowns, and Welo added 20 carries for 86 yards. Tony Gonzalez had three catches for 80 yards and a touchdown, and had two interceptions.
Harding tailback Maurice Clarett had 24 carries for 193 yards -- just 43 in the second half -- and a touchdown. Quarterback Mike Kokal finished 7-of-16 for 164 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
"At this stage of the [playoffs], you should expect the game to come down to the fourth quarter," McDaniels said. "I was disappointed in our ability to run-block and pass protect, especially in the second half."
Had opportunity: Harding had a chance to tie the score when the Raiders got the ball back with 2:14 left in the game, but managed just one first down and Kokal was intercepted on fourth down to end the game.
When Ignatius was awarded its trophy after the game, McDaniels looked at the Raiders and said, "That's gonna be us someday."
The Wildcats scored on the game's opening drive, going 65 yards in 11 plays, capped by a 2-yard touchdown run by Welo.
Harding made it 7-6 on the next drive when quarterback Mike Phillips hit Coree Tucker for a 72-yard touchdown. Kicker Mike Hanck was wide left on the extra point attempt.
Clarett tallies: After an Ignatius punt, Harding went 77 yards in seven plays, capped by Clarett's 52-yard touchdown. Phillips split a double swing and gate on the conversion to make it 14-7.
After another Ignatius punt, Kokal found Treymayne Warfield streaking down the left sideline for a 68-yard score to put Harding up 21-14.
Szep hit Cameron Wick for a 5-yard touchdown on the first play of the second half to make it 21-14. The two teams then traded interceptions, and Ignatius came up short on a scoring opportunity with under a minute left in the first half, losing the ball on downs at the Harding 31-yard line.
Clarett had 18 carries for 150 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Szep finished the first half 9-of-22 for 132 yards and a touchdown. Welo had 11 carries for 48 yards and a score.
"We did a much better job on the corners in the second half," Kyle said. "We tried to force them to run outside."
First lead: Ignatius needed just six seconds on its first drive of the second half to tie the score. Szep found Gonzalez for a 20-yard touchdown. Then, with one minute left in the third quarter, Ryan Franzinger scored from 2 yards out to give Ignatius its first lead.
After a nice return by Travis Stanford, Kokal hit a wide-open Clarett for a 65-yard touchdown. Harding went for the conversion, but Clarett was stopped inches short. Rob Massucci had a 27-yard interception in the fourth quarter that gave Harding its first lead of the second half.