By MARK HAZELWOOD
It wasn’t for lack of opportunities.
Wellsville had three trips to the red zone, and eight possessions total in St. Paul territory during Saturday’s Division VII, Region 23 semifinal at Orrville’s Red Rider Stadium, but came up empty-handed each and every time in a 24-0 season-ending loss to the Flyers.
The Flyers (11-1) allowed big chunks of rushing yardage to a powerful Wellsville attack, which totaled 234 yards on the ground on 44 attempts. But they forced four turnovers and stopped the Tigers (9-3) on downs three other times to advance to the regional championship next week.
The win sets up an anticipated showdown. St. Paul — the No. 8 team in the final Associated Press poll — will face Western Reserve (12-0), ranked No. 2 in the poll, at a site to be determined later today.
St. Paul is in the regional championship for the 10th time in 18 years, and for the sixth time in the past 10 years.
Wellsville was inside the St. Paul red zone three different times, and four other times inside the Flyer 40-yard line, but were ultimately kept off the scoreboard each time.
“Their defense was probably the most physical we’ve seen, and we’ve seen some good teams,” Wellsville coach Rich Wright said of St. Paul. “They schemed us up real well. We had too many turnovers, too many mistakes, and I made too many mistakes. But the effort was there. But three turnovers in the first half of a playoff game, it’s just not going to work out.
“We made some plays, but not enough,” he added. “But St. Paul is just a great program. John (Livengood) has been there quite a while and has it established. They played real hard and we have a lot of respect for them. We’ve made a bit too many mistakes all year, and it caught up with us tonight.”
Each team traded a pair of possessions, and finally after the Tigers’ third possession stalled, St. Paul got its first big play.
Grant Dilger fielded a punt at his own 34, and was able to stiff-arm a defender and get around the corner for a 58-yard punt return to the Wellsville 8.
The next play, running back Brad Smitih followed a perfectly blocked pitch to the right side and covered the distance with 4:22 left in the first quarter. Scottie Slauterbeck added the first of three PATs for a 7-0 lead.
On Wellsville’s ensuing possession, Devin Smith returned his interception 29 yards to the Wellsville 47.
Faced with a third-and-11 at the 48, Slauterbeck withstood pressure in the pocket, and threw a pass down the left sideline that hit sophomore Jaret Nickoli in stride. Nickoli then outran his defender for a 48-yard pass-and-catch TD to make it 14-0.
Wellsville then took advantage of a St. Paul fumble, and drove to the Flyer 4. But a false start penalty on third-and-goal pushed it back to the 10, and a 27-yard field goal attempt was just wide to the right.
With less than three minutes left in the half, St. Paul got the ball back at its own 25. On the first play from scrimmage, Nickoli sprinted through the line for a 75-yard scoring run with 2:17 left in the half that made it 21-0.
“I thought our kids made big plays,” Livengood said. “We were opportunistic, but we also made big plays.”
Much of the second half was a struggle for both teams, with the lone points coming on a 28-yard field goal by Slauterbeck with 3:01 left in the third quarter.
Wellsville got 19 carries for 158 yards from Marcus Moxley, while quarterback Jordan Sloan ran 10 times for 45 yards and Zack Mellot added 45 yards on six attempts. Sloan was 6-of-21 passing for 84 yards, but was intercepted three times.