By Tom Williams
A rugged opening followed by a disastrous finish to the first half combined to bring a quick end of the season for the Howland High football team.
The Chardon Hilltoppers scored on their first two possessions then added two touchdowns in the final 67 seconds before intermission in rolling to Friday’s 42-16 victory over Howland in a Division II, Region 5 quarterfinal.
“They are a good football team,” Howland coach Dick Angle said. “They had speed with the quarterback and their offense. We probably should have taken the ball instead of deferring, but hindsight is always better.
“It’s been a long time since we took a whooping like that. It wasn’t because we were ill-prepared or our kids didn’t fight — they were just a better football team tonight than we were.”
The fourth-seeded Hilltoppers needed just 123 seconds to grab the lead. Quarterback T.J. Benenati capped a five-play 52-yard drive with a 24-yard touchdown run.
The Tigers drove into Hilltoppers territory, but Chardon defender Anthony Catanzriti intercepted an Eric Lockney pass at the 21.
The Hilltoppers returned to the run, churning up 79 yards on eight plays. Matt Bolden capped the march with a 27-yard score for a 14-0 lead.
“We knew we couldn’t [afford] to start like that,” Tigers senior Brendan Cope said.
The second quarter went better for the Tigers. A high snap on a Hilltoppers’ punt attempt was kicked out of the end zone for a safety.
The Tigers then marched 54 yards on eight plays. De’Veon Smith scored from the 4 to slice the lead to 14-9.
“Your kids are programmed to never give up, never not fight,” Angle said. “I don’t think our kids gave up throughout the whole game. At 14-9, we were back in it.”
But the rest of the half was slanted in the Hilltoppers’ favor. Chardon gobbled most of the clock as Benenati iced a 10-play drive with a 13-yard scoring run.
The ensuing kickoff was muffed by two Tigers, giving the Hilltoppers the ball on the 21.
“The onside kick that we lost before the half was the killer,” Angle said. “That ended the game.”
Benenati found Andrew Gray in the corner of the end zone for a 2-yard scoring toss and 28-9 lead.
Benenati carried the ball 16 times for 156 yards.
“He was fast,” Cope said. “A lot of times, we didn’t know where the ball was at — we needed to focus more. But you know what? We played hard.”
Angle called Benenati “exceptional. [We] saw it on films and we thought we had a scheme to slow him down. We knew we couldn’t stop him completely.
“But for him to do what he did against us, he’s a good player.”
Smith, a Michigan recruit, finished his Howland career with 147 yards on 23 carries and both touchdowns.
“He had a great game and Lockney did some [positive] things,” Angle said. “But we just couldn’t overcome what we faced.”
The Hilltoppers’ rushing attack produced 252 yards on 60 carries.
“It’s a sad ending to a great season,” Angle said. “To have the inexperience we had and to win the [All-American] Conference [American Division] ourtright was a great challenge and a great thing for our players.
“We’re going to try and pick up our pieces and reflect back on some of the good things,” Angle said. “And look back at some of the not-so-good things and try to figure out why to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I think our team became a good football team late in the season and they were battlers all year. I’m as proud of them as any team I’ve ever had.”