Fitch happy to still be practicing in mid-November
By Tom Williams
For the third time in 28 seasons, the Austintown Fitch High School football team is practicing for a Week 13 game.
Summer’s heat has faded into autumn’s windy and chilly conditions. Good luck finding someone in the Falcons’ locker room who is complaining.
“Going to practices in cold weather, we are wearing hoodies, tights,” senior linebacker Sam Ortz said after Saturday’s 40-24 victory over Westerville Central in Mansfield in the Division I Region 1 quarterfinal. “We just get past [the conditions].
“Everybody on the team, we love it,” Ortz said of the Falcons’ 12-0 start, the first in school history. “We love going this far. It’s something else.
“It feels great and we just need to keep moving on.”
Battling the elements? Senior cornerback Rodney Smith said, “[We] don’t mind at all.”
Saturday, fourth-seeded Fitch will face top-seeded Lakewood St. Edward (10-1) at the University of Akron’s InfoCision Stadium.
It’s the third time since 1986 that the Falcons have been active this late. In 1986 and 1992, Fitch advanced to the state semifinals (back then, the playoffs ended in Week 14) before falling to St. Edward (30-0) and St. Ignatius (31-7), respectively.
Ortz and the Falcons’ defense had a monster second half against Westerville Central (10-2). Coming into the game, Warhawks quarterback Jared Drake had passed for more than 2,600 yards. He added 200 in the first half as the Warhawks jumped out to a 24-14 lead.
That’s when Smith and Ortz combined for the play of the game. On second-and-6 at the Westerville 43, Smith blitzed on Drake’s blind side. The 5-foot-8, 155-pound cornerback slammed into the 6-2, 210-pound quarterback and knocked the ball loose. Ortz caught it and returned the fumble to the 21.
“Amazing,” said Smith of how he felt after he made contact. “I hit him and I looked for the ball, and it’s in Sam Ortz’s hands. It felt terrific — we needed it.”
After senior quarterback Antwan Harris’ 11 yard run to the 1, Harris scored his second touchdown of the game to slice the Warhawks’ lead to four at halftime.
In the second half, the Falcons took the lead on junior running back Darrin Hall’s 24-yard touchdown run. Then the defense made several big plays to seal the victory.
Ortz recovered Tommy Mansfield’s muffed punt at the Westerfield 14 and sacked Drake twice.
Senior defensive back Gabe Chepke made his second interception in the third quarter — his first one came on the opening drive and set up the Falcons’ first touchdown.
Senior defensive back Kerrell Johnson twice picked off Drake in the fourth quarter to help the Falcons roll.
“That’s what we take pride in as the Falcon football team — we play like brothers,” Chepke said. “In that second half, we really had to come together.”
Chepke said the large contingent of Fitch fans who had traveled two hours made an impact when he stole that first pass .
“When that play happened, as soon as I caught the ball it was almost surreal, like a dream,” Chepke said. “[You know you] have an interception when your crowd just immediately erupts.
“So it was almost like an awakening moment in yourself because when you’re starting the game, you’re looking to get the butterflies out.
“This is what we live for — moments like these in Week 12,” Chepke said. “Being down, we weren’t about to give up.”