Toughest test awaits Reserve

Norwalk St. Paul has been dominating area teams in recent playoff games



The road keeps getting tougher for the Western Reserve High football team.

In the first two weeks of the postseason, the Blue Devils enjoyed a 45-19 romp over Garfield Heights Trinity then survived a 31-26 comeback against Danville.

Now, the Blue Devils are in their second regional championship game in three seasons and face their toughest opponent yet.

Saturday at 7 p.m. at Medina’s Ken Dukes Stadium, Western Reserve (12-0) will play Norwalk St. Paul (11-1) in the Division VII Region 23 final.

The winner will advance to the state semifinals to play the winner of the Glouster Trimble-Shadyside Region 25 game.

Against Danville, Western Reserve trailed 20-17 entering the fourth quarter. Senior running back Dan Zilke had touchdown runs of 6 and 22 yards to give the Blue Devils a 31-20 lead with less than six minutes remaining.

Western Reserve head coach Andrew Hake said the comeback was a testament to his team’s determination.

“We got down 20-17 in the fourth quarter,” Hake said. “They showed a lot of resolve and conviction. They hung in there and pulled it out.”

Things will be more difficult on Saturday against Norwalk St. Paul, which is 5-0 against area teams in the playoffs since 2007. The Flyers are in their 10th regional final in 18 seasons and their sixth in 10 seasons.

“They’re quick,” Hake said of Norwalk. “They’re tenacious. We’re going to have to play the best game we’ve played all year.”

Norwalk already has eliminated a pair of area teams. In the regional quarterfinal, the Flyers routed Southington, 55-7. Last week, they shut out Wellsville, 24-0.

Norwalk coach John Livengood said his team has to avoid being pushed around by Western Reserve’s offensive line.

“They’re huge; they are enormous up front,” he said. “They’ve got probably the best receiver we’ve seen all year in [Joe Falasca],” Livengood said. “Their quarterback [Nick Allison] throws a very nice football.

Defensively, they’re very aggressive,” Livengood said. “They bring ‘backers like crazy.”

Norwalk St. Paul has a slew of offensive weapons.

Quarterback Scottie Slauterbeck had a 48-yard touchdown pass, kicked three PATs and had a 28-yard field goal against Wellsville. His season numbers are 69-of-130 passing for 1,115 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Also against the Tigers, sophomore running back Jaret Nickoli had 111 yards on six carries, including a 75-yard scoring run for a 21-0 lead. Brad Smith added 64 yards on 13 carries. His 8-yard TD was the first score.

Norwalk also has backs Jesse Gross, who leads with 1,020 yards and 22 touchdowns, and Devin Smith, with 843 yards with 14 scores.

Livengood was asked what the Flyers need to do to be victorious.

“We’ve got to be able to pick up the blitz,” Livengood said. “We’ve got to do things to counter that.

“Defensively, we’ve got to utilize our quickness and not allow their big offensive linemen to wall us off and run the football,” Livengood said. “Coverage-wise, try to account for [Falasca]. He’s a 6-foot-5, 185-pound kid with great hands and runs great routs.”

Hake said despite the daunting task, he believes the Blue Devils will be up to the challenge.

“Our defense played well again [against Danville],” Hake said. “I think our offensive line is going to have to pick up their game. They’re going to do it because they have to. They have family counting on them.

“We’re a very family-oriented program.”

Offensively, Western Reserve will be led by Allison, who has thrown for more than 2,000 yards with 20 touchdowns and three interceptions.

In the backfield are Zilke and junior running back Evan Nesbit, who have each surpassed 1,000 yards.

That trio is the core of a group that have helped the Blue Devils transform from a mediocre program to one that is in contention year after year.

“The kids play really hard,” he said. “They have a heroic sense of belonging. It’s a real weapon. I feel privileged to coach these kids.”

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