By Kevin Connelly
Austintown Fitch head coach Phil Annarella said he talked to his team all week about avoiding a letdown after an emotional victory last Friday over Massillon.
Apparently his players listened.
The Falcons had the pedal to the metal from the opening kickoff and used an onslaught of rushers to run away from Marion Harding, 63-7, Saturday at Falcon Stadium.
“We certainly were concerned about it, but they responded well,” Annarella said. “We always tell them it’s about us. We can’t worry how the opposition plays, and we’ve done it all year, and fortunately they listened this week.”
The other factor they accounted for all week in practice was a change at quarterback. Senior Gabe Chepke got the start on senior day over junior Antwan Harris, who is nursing an ankle injury he suffered last week. Annarella said the plan was to start Chepke on senior day all along, but with Harris not at full strength it was a good opportunity to let him recover.
“That was planned for a long time anyway,” Annarella said on his decision to give Chepke the nod. “Whether Antwan was hurt or not, Gabe was gonna start today. He certainly has earned it. He’s a terrific young man and he did a good job today.”
Chepke’s arm, however, wasn’t needed as the Falcons (8-0) could not be stopped on the ground. Running back Darrin Hall lost two yards on his first carry of game, but took the next handoff 31 yards for Fitch’s first score. He added two more first-half touchdown runs of 3 and 68 and finsihed with 181 yards on 14 carries. His day, along with many other Falcon starters, was done at the half as Fitch took a 35-0 lead into the locker room.
“We didn’t get a chance to throw as much as we would’ve liked to,” Chepke said with a smile. “We had to run the ball a little more, but besides that it was great.”
Chepke completed 3 of 6 passes for 43 yards — all in the first half.
The Presidents' chances of testing Fitch took a blow when tailback L.J. Scott -- a Louisville recruit -- suffered an injury midway through the second quarter. He had 78 yards to that point, including two big runs to impress a sparse crowd that stuck it out through the chilly, rainy weather.
But Scott came out of the locker room for the second half in street clothes and using crutches because of a high ankle sprain.
“It is tough when you lose a back like that,” said Marion Harding coach John Brady, whose team dropped to 3-5. “Overall we were pleased, the effort was there, but when you play a team like Austintown Fitch, you don’t have room for error.”
The Falcons used 11 different ball carriers to rush for 442 yards and nine touchdowns. Annarella summed it up best: “It’s what we do.”
The Fitch locker room was all smiles after the game, especially the senior class. They stressed there was still a lot of work to do, but Saturday afternoon’s performance was reason to celebrate — especially for Chepke.
“It really meant a lot to me just to be out there with my brothers on the team,” he said. “Just to play one more time as a starter [at quarterback] really made my year.”