By Kevin Connelly
The only thing between Austintown Fitch and the first unbeaten season in school history was a program that knows a thing or two about perfect seasons.
Cardinal Mooney did everything it could Friday night to spoil the celebration for Fitch, but the Falcons prevailed with a 19-14 victory at Stambaugh Stadium.
“As badly as the players and coaches wanted to win this game for ourselves, we wanted to win it more for Austintown Fitch high school, and the Austintown community,” an elated Falcons coach Phil Annarella said. “And I think the players took it to heart.”
The last win is usually the hardest to achieve, and this case was no different for Fitch (10-0) on Friday night. After taking a 13-0 lead late in the first half, the Falcons gave up 14 unanswered points to Cardinal Mooney (6-4) and trailed for all but 17 seconds of the third quarter.
“We had some adversity and we always preach about that to the players and they really handled it well tonight,” Annarella said. ”We hadn’t been down like that, especially with the pressure of the game and situation, and they responded well.”
Fitch marched the ball down the field, 86 yards, and capped off the game-winning drive with a 2-yard touchdown run by Antwan Harris to start the fourth quarter. He finished with a game-high 179 yards for the Falcons.
“He’s really taken so much heat off of Darrin [Hall] throughout the seson because they just can’t overlook him — they never know when he’s pulling that ball out of there,” Annarella said of his quarterback.
After a scoreless opening quarter, the Falcons were looking at a fourth-and-2 from the Cardinal Mooney 38-yard line to start the second quarter. The offense went to its bread and butter, as Harris kept it on a read-option play and picked up 28 yards. That set up a 10-yard touchdown run by Joey Harrington to give the Falcons the lead early in the second.
Harris went to work again late in the first half, picking up 35 yards on a quarterback keeper to put the Falcons in Cardinals territory. The very next play, Harris found Harrington streaking down the sideline. Harris had to lay out — fully extended — to haul in a 33-yard touchdown pass.
“Actually three times before that play [Harrington] was wide open and I missed it,” Harris said. “They told me that on the sidelines, so then when we went out I was like, ‘I’m going for Joey’ and I threw it up and he caught it.”
Harris said he didn’t actually see the catch after getting hit as he released the ball, but could tell from his sideline’s reaction it was something good.
“I’ve never caught the ball like that, but in practice I try to make spectacluar catches,” said Harrington, who finished with 63 total yards and two touchdowns. “I’m getting better every week at catching. I’m not normally used to playing the wide receiver position.”
On the ensuing drive for Cardinal Mooney, with less than two minutes remaining in the first half, Jon Saadey found a wide-open Mark Handel across midfield and he outran Falcons linebacker Gary Gibson for an 80-yard touchdown.
The Falcons received the opening kickoff of the second half and after a holding penalty, Harrington took a handoff around the left side where he was met by Cardinals linebacker Jordan Jones, who — all in one motion — took the ball from Harrington and never broke stride to walk in from the 15-yard line. It was Cardinal Mooney’s first lead of the evening, and momentum had swung to its sideline, but the Cardinals weren’t able to keep it.
“You were able to steal possession,” Cardinals coach P.J. Fecko said. “By forcing a turnover for a score, you steal a possession.”
Cardinal Mooney entered the final week of the regular season ranked second in its region and may drop some with the loss. But with the top eight teams advancing, a return to the playoffs is almost certain.
Fitch will undoubtedly host a first-round playoff game when the pairings are released on Sunday afternoon.