By Steve RUMAN
The beginning and end of Friday’s non-conference game between Youngstown East and Niles McKinley was ugly for the Red Dragons.
The beginning because Niles needed just four plays to fumble the ball away on its first two possessions.
The ending because the Red Dragons were forced to retreat into their locker room rather than exchange the customary post-game handshake with the Panthers. Before the Dragons could line up, East players angrily surged toward the Niles sideline and had to be stopped by police officers and sheriff deputies.
Once order was restored, Niles coach Brian Shaner decided to focus on the positive aspects of the night, which resulted in a 22-14 Red Dragons victory.
“I’m just glad this team has the opportunity to represent Niles next week,” Shaner said. “It should be a great atmosphere. I know our fans will show up, and it feels great to be sitting at 8-2.”
The Dragons entered the night ranked second in Division III, Region 9. The victory virtually guarantees their first-ever home playoff game. The Red Dragons will make their first playoff appearance since 2006, and fourth in school history.
East ends the season with a 3-7 mark — the same record it had last year when it was coached by Shaner.
Niles was able to survive its sloppy play thanks to a gritty performance by Stefan Yuhas. The senior quarterback scored all three of his team’s touchdowns, despite playing with an injured shoulder. He rushed 23 times for 79 yards.
“The kid is a gladiator,” Shaner said. “To play that game the way he did with the injury he sustained last week is absolutely one of the gutsiest performances I’ve ever seen.”
Following a scoreless first quarter, East struck first on a Derrick Tensley 10-yard run. JuJuan Jones pulled in a pass from Rayfield Bell on the two-point conversion.
Tensley was limited to 59 rushing yards on 13 carries. Bell threw for 185 yards (10-of-24), but was intercepted three times.
Yuhas scored his first touchdown with 2:39 left in the first half, but Niles’ try for two failed, leaving the Dragons down 8-6 at the half.
Niles recovered an onside kick to start the third quarter. That led to a Yuhas 5-yard touchdown.
Yuhas rushed in from 9 yards out with 2:27 left in the game to build the Dragons’ lead to 22-8. The Panthers immediately responded with a 54-yard TD pass from Bell to Taylor Johnson. However, Niles recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt and ran out the clock.
“I credit Niles and wish them well in the playoffs,” East coach Jim Vivo said. “But when you have an eighth grade official refereeing a varsity football game, I told him in the first quarter there was going to be problems and he didn’t want to listen to me. It was ridiculous. The guy should be probably reffing in the lower levels. He’s not ready for a varsity football game. Nowhere near it.”