By Pete Chiodo
After the game was over, Conneaut head coach Pat Gould walked down to the end of the field to congratulate Oil City head coach Matt LaVerde on a well-played contest.
“Your quarterback’s only a sophomore?” asked LaVerde.
“Yeah,” said Gould.
“Wow,” LaVerde responded, drawing the word out with a few impressed O’s.
“So is your’s,” said Gould. “What’s the difference?”
As Gould walked away from this honestly friendly exchange he looked back over his shoulder with a grin. LaVerde, smiling, nodded back. The two coaches seemed to agree wordlessesly that although this was the first time that their teams have met on the gridiron, there is a good chance that it won’t be the last.
“It’s going to be a fun couple of years with those guys,” LaVerde said later.
Oil City claimed Round 1 between the two schools as the Oilers defeated the Eagles 24-21 in an outstanding District 10 Class AAA playoff fight at Franklin High School on Friday night.
“We played a good game,” said Gould. “The kids battled. We’re right there.”
Conneaut, which ends the season with a record of 7-4, certainly had its chances.
A late interception by Eagles senior Clay Bortner gave Conneaut the ball on its own 33 with 30 seconds left. The Eagles were able to get across midfield. However, a last-ditch, lateral-filled play with 2.3 seconds remaining ended up in the hands of the Oilers, sealing the win.
“It was a great game,” said LaVerde. “Those were two good football teams. We were evenly matched. In the first half, (Conneaut) won the turnover battle and they had the upper hand. We scored a touchdown right before the half, which was big. In the second half, we won the turnover battle, just barely. And we kicked that field goal and that, obviously, was the difference.”
Sam Wilson’s 30-yard field goal in the third quarter — the only score of the third quarter — did prove to be the margin. Otherwise, the two teams traded touchdowns.
Oil City did, however, outgain Conneaut 400-309, utilizing a tough passing attack in the first half and a strong ground game in the second half.
Oilers’ running back Kevin Daly carried the ball 23 times for 172 yards and rushed in a pair of touchdowns. And quarterback Jackson McFall had a big night. He was 15-for-24 passing — including 12-for-15 in the first half — for 161 yards and one touchdown.
“Too many passes,” said Gould. “They passed the ball extremely well. That hurt us.”
Conneaut was led by quarterback Hunter Merritt, who rushed the ball 20 times for 155 yards and carried in all three of the Eagles’ touchdowns. He also had a nice night throwing the ball, completing 10 of 17 tries for 104 yards.
“Hunter Merritt stepped up,” said Gould. “He played well. We passed a lot better tonight than we usually do. We passed a lot more than we usually do.”
Merritt got the Eagles on the board first, completing his team’s game-opening drive with a 38-yard touchdown run.
Oil City wouldn’t answer until the second quarter, finishing an 85-yard, 11-play drive with a 21-yard scoring strike from McFall to Logan Way. McFall was 6-for-8 for 73 yards during the drive.
Conneaut answered right back with a nine-play, 72-yard drive that ended with a 15-yard touchdown run by Merritt.
Then right before the half, Oil City worked deep into Conneaut territory and had a first down at the Eagles’ 2.
After three plays, the Oilers were still stuck at the 1. Finally, Daly ran it in off the left side to break the blockade and tie the game at 14-14 going into the break.
Oil City opened the third with an epic 15-play, 62-yard possession that ended with Wilson’s field goal.
Conneaut had a chance to answer on its next drive. On third-and-long, Merritt broke a 14-yarder down to Oil City’s 4, however Jesse Rice stripped the ball out of Merritt’s hands, giving it back to the Oilers.
Oil City then took that possession 96 yards on 11 plays, capping it off with a 20-yard touchdown run by Daly. Oil City now led 24-14.
Conneaut answered with a scoring drive of its own, highlighted by a pair of big third-down completions from Merritt to Taylor Williams. Merritt later scored on a one-yarder to make it 24-21 with 3:00 to play.
Conneaut’s onside kick didn’t go the full 10 yards before the Eagles grabbed it, giving possession to the Oilers. They held onto the ball until Bortner picked it off and returned to 23 yards to the 33.
The comeback drive for Conneaut fell short, however.
Oil City (7-4) now moves on to face defending state champion Cathedral Prep in a semifinal matchup this coming Friday. A site and time for the game will be announced later.