By Frank Foreman
Nobody told Hunter Merritt that Conneaut-Meadville isn’t a rivalry yet.
In the second installment of the Crawford County neighbors, the Eagles walked away with their second straight win over Meadville during a 46-26 drubbing at Bender Field Friday night.
Leading up to the game, both head coaches downplayed the game as a rivalry, citing that with just one game between the two schools prior to last night, it’s too soon to make the claim.
Merritt respectfully disagrees.
“That was an amazing game. Everybody played their hearts out,” Merritt said following his 238-yard rushing performance. “We won the county, that’s the big thing. Big rivalry. It’s bragging rights. And that’s big around here, I guess.”
The dynamic combo of Merritt and running back Elijah Anderton set the tone early, despite the Bulldogs keeping the game within reach during the first half. Meadville traded scores with Conneaut during the first quarter and early in the second, but the Eagles slowly began to pull away, putting a nice cap on a 7-3 regular season that started with three losses.
“This is the way to end the regular season,” Conneaut head coach Pat Gould said. “The goal before the General McLane game was to win out and make the playoffs and see what happens. That’s what we were telling them all week, this was a county championship for us. That was a big deal, and it worked out for us.”
The Bulldogs, a team that rarely throws the ball more than 10 times a game, opened up the contest with back-to-back completions for 30 yards to spark the opening drive of the game. But four plays later, fullback Caleb Bish fumbled and the Eagles recovered, allowing Conneaut to take advantage of the turnover.
The Eagles marched down the field on eight runs before Elijah Anderton scored on a bruising 19-yard touchdown run in which the junior broke multiple tackles to make it 6-0 after a missed extra point.
The Bulldogs responded with a long drive of their own, with Bish making up for the fumble by plowing in from seven yards out to tie the game at 6-6.
Bish, coming off a huge performance a week ago against DuBois, ran well for the second game in a row, once again taking advantage of solid blocking up front. As a team, Meadville found success on the ground, something that made head coach Mike Feleppa happy.
“The backs ran the ball well. The offensive line blocked well for them,” Feleppa said.
Conneaut proved it could run with plenty of success as well, with Anderton punching in his second touchdown of the game from five yards out early in the second quarter to push the Eagles ahead 13-6. Meadville came right back with an impressive drive of its own, as quarterback Kirk Mumau snuck the ball in from the 2-yard line with 6:58 left in the first half to once again even the game at 13.
With the game still in the balance, Conneaut began flexing its collective muscles on the field when Brennon Miller scored on a 1-yard touchdown run on the ensuing drive. A quick 3-and-out by the Eagles’ defense gave Conneaut the ball back late in the half, when Merritt found Taylor Williams on a 10-yard touchdown pass to quickly give Conneaut a 26-13 halftime lead.
Any thought of a Meadville comeback was immediately erased on the first possession of the second half, Merritt broke open an 83-yard touchdown run on the third play from scrimmage to make it 33-13. Merritt’s run was a perfect example of just how explosive Conneaut can be at any given time on the field.
It doesn’t hurt when you have a sophomore as talented as Merritt touching the ball on every snap either.
“That was just a read-option. (Meadville’s defense) all flowed out,” Merritt said. “I cut back against the grain and it was off to the races from there.”
Meadville did score on a 17-play drive following Merritt’s touchdown, as Bish ran it in on a 5-yard run, but by that point, it just wasn’t enough.
Conneaut’s rushing attack became overwhelming, and following an injury to Anderton late in the second quarter, it was Miller who stepped up and didn’t allow the Eagles’ offense to miss a beat.
“The offensive line was outstanding at opening up seams,” Miller said, who finished with 109 yards on just eight carries. “I probably could have drove a car through a few of them.”
Also turning in a big game for Conneaut was Williams, who finished with two touchdown receptions in the win.
Anderton, who rolled his ankle and sat out the remainder of the game, should be fine moving forward, according to Gould. Prior to the injury, Anderton had 77 yards on the ground and a pair of scores.
“I think (Anderton) is fine. I think he’ll be fine next week,” Gould said. “He twisted his ankle a little bit. I think next week he’ll be fine.”
Meadville was led by Bish’s 97 yards rushing, followed by Nathan Martin at 86. Freshman Journey Brown, who had 15 carries, totaled 80 yards, and looks strong carrying the ball.
Conneaut’s season continues next week when it takes on Oil City at Franklin High School. In a year that started off in a hole, the Eagles have dug their way out and appear to be a team that can keep pace with anyone.
For Meadville, a disappointing season finally comes to a close, ending on a note that Feleppa wish would have been much different.
“I told them that I was proud of them. They battled hard all year,” Feleppa said. “They have nothing to be ashamed of. Even though the record doesn’t show it, we played a lot of good football.”