By Pete Chiodo
There were about 15 seconds left in the game. And Warren’s student section started up the familiar chant: “I believe ... I believe that we ... I believe that we’re gonna win.”
Those fans were correct in that belief. Their Dragons were, at the time, about to kneel on the final down of a 21-12 victory over Conneaut in a District 10 Class AAA quarterfinal game, played Friday at Corry High School.
The point is, though, it wasn’t until that late in the game that the Dragons could truly feel comfortable expressing that belief.
That’s because the newly-formed Conneaut crew, which a few weeks ago didn’t even expect to make the postseason after playing all year in a single-A region, entered the triple-A bracket, faced a more traditional big school, and put up an admirable fight.
“Yeah,” said Conneaut head coach Pat Gould. “I would have liked to have won, though.”
The Eagles finish their first season as a football program with a record of 6-4.
“The kids’ effort, very proud of the kids’ effort,” said Gould. “They battled. They played hard. I think we can definitely play with the triple-A schools. I don’t know where we’ll be in two years. But we battled. And I’m proud of the kids. The program is coming along.”
Warren, meanwhile, improves to 9-2 and advances to this coming Friday’s semifinal round, where it will face Region 6 champion Cathedral Prep at a site and time to be announced later.
“My hat’s off to (Conneaut), they’re a quality football team,” said Warren head coach Brad Wright. “They were battle-tested coming in and they came to play.”
Leading the Dragons past Conneaut was quarterback Austin Jerman. He attempted 14 passes on the night, and missed on just three of them. His 11 completions then went for 129 yards and two touchdowns.
Yet, it wasn’t an easy night for the 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior. The Eagles had the blitz on more often than not. And Jerman ended up getting sacked once, hurried numerous times, and his first five keepers went for either zero of negative yardage.
There would have been a few more negative statistics to report, but Conneaut’s defense was flagged three times in Warren’s offensive backfield after making plays on the quarterback, including a pair of roughing the passer calls that extended two of the Dragons’ scoring drives.
“I thought we did a real nice job of holding (Jerman) in the backfield,” said Gould. “The blitzes were working. We were getting to him.”
A lesser quarterback may have gotten rattled by all the pressure. But not Jerman.
“For him, this is his 22nd start,” said Wright. “He’s unflappable. You’re not going to spook this kid. And that’s what you saw (Friday) night. He’s going to handle it well.”
As the game wound down in the second half, Jerman completed some key throws to move the Dragons down the field, and finally got some room to scramble to keep the ball out of Conneaut’s possession. In fact, the Eagles only got off eight plays in the fourth quarter, limiting their chances for a comeback.
“We knew coming in that we had to get the ball out quick and we had to check to certain things so that we weren’t wasting plays and running to where the blitz is or trying to throw when we can’t block it,” said Wright. “It took a lot of game planning. And once the kids settled it, it worked.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Jerman got the Dragons on the scoreboard on the first play of the second, completing a 13-yard scoring pass to 6-foot-5 tight end Mark Davis in the end zone.
Conneaut answered with its first TD a couple of possessions later. Using a short field situation set up by a nice series by the defense, the Eagles went 35 yards on six plays and popped it in for the score with a one-yard carry by Elijah Anderton.
Kicker Tanner Houck made the first PAT. But the play had been whistled dead on an offsides call by Warren. And Houck’s next try missed, leaving Warren with a 7-6 advantage.
However, the Dragons stretched that on the very next play when wide receiver Jordan Willetts took an option pitch 50 yards for a touchdown.
Conneaut tried to get one more score before the break. On eight plays, the Eagles marched from their own 35 to Warren’s 6. However a last-second pass attempt by Hunter Merritt was picked off in the end zone by Willetts and returned all the way to midfield. And the half ended with Warren leading 14-6.
Conneaut knocked six points off that lead halfway through the third. During that possession, Merritt broke off a 50-yard keeper deep into Dragons territory. And three plays later, he hit Jon Onderko for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
The 2-point conversion failed. Warren held on to a 14-12 lead.
They would make it a two-possession game on the next drive, finishing a seven-play series with a 15-yard pass to Davis, who amazingly kept Jerman’s low pass off the carpet for the completion.
Davis had two catches for 28 yards in the game. Cody McGraw had three catches for 37 yards. And Willetts caught three for 42 yards and had one 50-yard rush for touchdown.
Matt Falvo was the Dragons’ leading rusher with 86 yards on 17 attempts.
For Conneaut, the freshman Merritt finished the night with 22 carries for 134 yards. He was also 4-for-9 for 37 yards passing. Anderton added 53 yards on 15 carries.
“The nice thing is Hunter got some experience (in the playoffs), Jon Onderko got some experience,” said Gould. “A lot of kids are going to learn from this experience and want more. The kids should be excited for what they did and what they accomplished. And they should want to move on and be excited for the offseason and to get going and be hungry.”