The Bears used ball-control offense to keep Malvern's offensive unit off the field.
By JOHN BUTERA
MALVERN -- In football, they say the best defense is a good offense. Meet Aaron Merrill, the Leetonia High team's best defense.
Merrill rushed for 210 yards and three touchdowns Friday night as Leetonia posted its first playoff victory in school history, beating Malvern, 26-12.
Next Friday, Leetonia will face Monroeville in a Division VI Region 21 semifinal game.
The Bears (9-2) overcame a shaky start, overcoming deficits of 6-0 and 12-6 before turning in a second-half ball-control offense that kept Malvern off the field for virtually the rest of the contest.
"I am happy for the kids and the community," Leetonia coach Art Altomare said. "We even scored this time."
Altomare was joking about Leetonia's two previous playoff appearances -- two shutouts.
Leetonia, behind Merrill, broke away from a 12-12 tie in the third quarter when it completed a 68-yard scoring drive.
Jamie Kegelmyer tallied on an 8-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown and Merrill's placekick added the extra point to put the Bears ahead 19-12 with 5:07 remaining in the period.
The Bears' next drive was just as impressive as they marched 63 yards in 13 plays with Merrill blasting over from 3 yards out.
The biggest play of the drive came when, out of a punt formation, Leetonia's Jon Williams picked up 14 yards on a fourth-and-4 play.
Leetonia continued to take time off the clock in the second half, using up 8 minutes, 52 seconds in the third quarter. That was after the Bears had possession for only 2 minutes, 34 seconds of the first period.
The Bears ran off the final 7 minutes, 50 seconds of the fourth quarter.
Leetonia's controlled offense rushed 56 plays and the Bears only tried two passes, both of them in the first period.
The Bears gained 298 yards on the ground, which included 144 by Merrill in the second half.
"At halftime we were told not to get down and to just play how we were capable of playing," Merrill said. "Sometimes our defense comes out slow, but once we woke up, that gave our offense a chance to get going."
First big break
Behind 6-0, Leetonia produced the game's first big break when Malvern's (7-4) punter went down to one knee prior to his attempted kick, giving the Bears the ball deep in Hornets' territory.
Moments later, Merrill scored the game-tying TD on a 7-yard run.
Malvern's Jamar Stephens returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards, giving the Hornets a 12-6 lead.
"We'll have to work on that," Altomare said. "Our special teams play will need to improve if we expect to get any further.
Malvern was 10 of 23 passing for 153 yards and the Hornets were intercepted twice and they gained 149 yards rushing.