By Joe Scalzo
On the second-to-last play of the second quarter — just seconds after quarterback Jon Saadey had taken a costly sack to put Cardinal Mooney out of field goal range — the Cardinals faced a fourth-and-22 at the Cleveland Benedictine 42.
So, naturally, in a battle of two of the best Catholic schools in Ohio, the Cardinals called a Hail Mary.
Saadey threw a rainbow to Denver Martin, who went up in traffic in the end zone and somehow came down with the ball to give the Cardinals a two-touchdown lead just before halftime.
“It’s one of those throws where you’ve got to get it off quick,” Saadey said. “When I threw it, I knew it had something special on it. I knew my boy Denver was going to get it.”
From there, the Cardinals’ defense did the rest, holding the potent Bengals offense to just one-second half touchdown en route to a 28-21 victory in Friday’s Division IV regional final at Stewart Field.
“Our guys, with the season they played and the folks that they played, didn’t hit the panic button,” said Cardinals coach P.J. Fecko, whose team fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter. “We were able to stay with our game plan and get after them.
“And we exploded there in the second quarter.”
The wind played a big factor in the game, particularly in the first half as Benedictine used it to hit on a couple big passes, including a 50-yard TD from sophomore Brian Schoeffler to Matt Merimee that made it 14-0 with 4:23 left in the first quarter.
But Mooney answered on the ensuing drive with a 71-yard TD run by Mark Handel, then reeled off 21 points in the second quarter.
“We came out slow,” said Handel, who rushed 15 times for a game-high 140 yards. “Coach Fecko said to us at halftime that we must have been a little hung over from last week’s win.
“But we kind of got our stuff together and after that long run I had, I think the momentum kind of swung our way.”
C.J. Amill added 111 yards rushing on 20 carries for the Cardinals (8-4), who will meet Steubenville in next week’s state semifinal.
Saadey finished 7 of 13 for 104 yards and also ran for a touchdown, while Martin had a second-half interception.
“In games like these, we have to stick together as a team,” Saadey said. “All year we’ve become more and more of a family and each and every week we’ve gotten better. We stuck together tonight.”
Benedictine junior Jerome Baker, one of the top recruits in the state, finished with 77 yards rushing on 21 carries with a touchdown. He also caught an 11-yard TD late in the third quarter for the second half’s only score.
Schoeffler went 6-of-19 for 161 yards and two TDs but after cutting the deficit to seven, the Bengals (9-4) never got past midfield.
Now, just one year after missing the playoffs, Mooney will make its 16 state semifinal appearance, including its sixth under Fecko. The Cardinals have won eight state titles, including four under Fecko.
“It’s always special,” Fecko said. “It’s great for our team to experience it, but by the same token, when you get into the playoffs, the goal is to win the whole thing. That’s still the goal.
“We’re excited about this but there’s still a couple steps left in this tournament and we hope we can get there.”