By Pete Chiodo
It was no work of art. But it was a victory. And that was good enough for the Conneaut Area football team, which opened the season with a 27-17 win over Girard on Friday night.
Eagles quarterback Hunter Merritt dominated the stat sheet for the Eagles (1-0), rushing the ball 26 times for 305 yards and three long-range touchdowns.
On Conneaut’s game-opening series, the Eagles were facing a third and three on their own 48 when Merritt took the snap, headed through the left side of the line, bounced off a tackle and then tore off down the left sideline for a 52-yard touchdown run.
The Eagles added a second touchdown shortly after that. Jarred Hannold picked off Girard quarterback Joe Dunn and returned it 31 yards to YellowJackets’ 9 yard line.
Four plays later, Elijah Anderton slipped through the line untouched for a one-yard score.
“We came out right away and did what we wanted to do,” said Conneaut head coach Pat Gould.
Conneaut’s offense cooled a little after that. And Girard (0-1) was eventually able to work itself into scoring position by the second quarter, settling for a 41-yard field goal by Devin Mason to make it a 14-3 game.
However, Merritt lit the Eagles right back up again, blazing through the middle of Girard’s defense and into the open field to score an 80-yard touchdown. Conneaut now led 21-3.
Girard got those seven points right back, however, as Brian McNally took back the ensuing kickoff 79 yards for a touchdown.
The half would end a short time later, with Conneaut ahead 21-10.
The second half got just plain ugly as far as penalties went for Conneaut. The Eagles’ first half wasn’t great by any means, as the team committed four penalties for 45 yards. But even that looked well put together compared to the 10 penalties that took Conneaut back a total of 109 yards in the second half.
“We were killing ourselves,” said Gould. “And it was just one penalty after another. We’d get a nice gain and then we’d go back.”
Good thing for Conneaut that Merritt is able to make up a lot of ground.
Late in the third quarter, on a possession that saw the Eagles commit three consecutive holding penalties, Conneaut was faced with a third and 10 on their own 20.
Merritt faked the hand-off to a motioning Anderton, then blasted through the middle once again, off towards the horizon for another 80-yard touchdown trot. It was now 27-10 Eagles.
“We gave up the big play,” said Girard head coach Jim Funk. “We were weak on third down.”
Girard’s offense was finally able to put together a touchdown drive in the fourth. On the first play of the possession, Dunn hit receiver Bryan Divido on a 16-yard pass, but was apparently hurt on the play. He would spend the rest of the game on the sidelines holding his throwing arm.
In came back-up Nason McCall and he guided his team down the field. His biggest play was a 29-yard pass to Divido on fourth and 10, which put the ’Jackets’ at Conneaut’s 9.
Four plays later, Girard was facing another fourth down when McCall hit Cody Dinger in the end zone on a nine-yard touchdown strike, making it 27-17
That would be it for the scoring. McCall tried to move his team through the air a couple more times, but he was picked off twice in the fourth quarter by Conneaut’s Justin Ledford.
Dunn ended the game 7-for-19 for 48 yards, McCall was 4-for-11 for 42 yards. Divido was the team’s leading receiver with three catches for 50 yards. And Kel Barnes led Girard on the ground with 51 yards on 14 carries.
Following Merritt and his triple century, Anderton followed with 56 yards on 24 carries.
Conneaut out-gained Girard 373-146 overall, including 361-56 on the ground.
“The defense played extremely well,” said Gould. “They couldn’t have had a big game passing the ball, and that’s what they do. Our defense just played a great football game.”