Panic should have set in on the Cleveland Heights football team.
The Tigers faced a two-touchdown deficit against defending Division II state champion Maple Heights in the slop and the mud that was Stafford Stadium’s field.
But somehow, none of that mattered. Self-belief proved more powerful than any reputation or beleaguered history. Behind senior quarterback Bryce Jones’ two second-quarter touchdown passes, the Tigers rallied for a 20-12 victory and ended the Mustangs’ 23-game winning streak on Friday.
The Tigers (9-0, 6-0) won the Lake Erie League title and produced the first undefeated regular season in the school’s history, putting their fears in the past and placing a home playoff game ahead of them.
“(It’s) history. Seven letters, man. It’s never been done. Senior year. Going out with a bang,” Tigers wide receiver Terrance Bailey said. “We’re going to take it to the state playoffs. Make history there. We’ve got five more wins under our belt. We’re not stopping until we’re 14-0, man. Let’s go.”
The Tigers came into Friday night ranked fifth in the Division I, Region 1 computer rankings, and a win against Maple Heights would secure, not only the school’s first appearance ever in the playoffs, but a home game to boot. The team will learn who it hosts late Saturday evening or early Sunday.
But no matter what happens in the playoffs or when he plays at Wisconsin, Tigers tackle Kyle Dodson will always have this night when he became a league champion.
“It feels amazing. It feels like I’m in a dream right now,” Dodson, the Tigers massive senior tackle, said. “I feel like we won the Super Bowl just now.”
Cleveland Heights was ranked 14th last week in the Associated Press’ Division I state poll but fell out of the poll this week despite shutting out Warren G. Harding, 28-0, last week.
Tigers head coach Jeff Rotsky, who coached at Maple Heights for five years before arriving at Cleveland Heights in 2007, got caught up in the pageantry of winning a league title but took time to remember one of the team’s inspirational heroes who couldn’t attend Friday night’s game.
“It’s a pretty good day, I’ve got my wife, my son, my daughter and my mom here. The only thing that’s missing is Coach (Mario) Houston. That’s the only thing that’s missing from today,” Rotsky said of the Tigers special team coach on Sept. 23. Rotsky said Houston has begun to do some moderate assisted walking during his rehabilitation.
The Mustangs (8-1, 5-1) are ranked third in the Associated Press’ Division II state poll behind Avon and Trotwood Madison whom it defeated to win the state title last season.
After a pair of tight victories over Shaker Heights (29-25) and Lorain (28-27), the Mustangs found their footing last week and crushed Bedford, 22-0. It initially looked as though the Mustangs would do the same to the Tigers on Friday night.
On the first play from scrimmage, Marcus Bagley fumbled after a 5-yard gain and set up the Mustangs on the Tigers’ 40-yard line. After an illegal procedure penalty, Mervin McCane blasted up the middle for a 45-yard TD run and a 6-0 lead.
On the next Tigers’ possession, Braxton Gamble fumbled at the 25, and Arieus Townes scooped it up and ran to the Tigers’ 15, but Cleveland Heights forced the Mustangs to turn it over on downs at the Tigers’ 9 on a Da’Junn Graham incompletion.
But as the Tigers regained possession, their drive quickly stalled, and Jones’ 22-yard punt skidded harmlessly up field to Cleveland Heights’ 29. Three plays later, McCane punched it in from 3 yards out for a 12-0 lead. The Mustangs failed on both two-point conversion attempts.
Jones righted himself after the bad punt on the offensive side of the ball as he zipped a pair of 26-yard passes to Shelton Gibson and De’Mone Frisco to eventually set up a 4-yard TD pass to Gibson to draw the Tigers to 12-7 at 11:51 of the second quarter.
Later in the second quarter, after the Tigers forced the Mustangs to punt after a three-and-out at the Maple Heights’ 30, Maple Heights punter Almonte Patrick fumbled a high snap over his head and attempted to run. Marcus McShepard and Christian Cartwright crushed him at the 15 at 2:03 of the second quarter.
After a holding penalty, Jones found Dorien Hudson for a 22-yard TD pass for a 13-12 lead with 1:28 remaining in the half.
Jones said the team chose not to get too excited about being down against the Division II champs.
“We knew it was our game to win. We had faith in each other, and my team had faith in me,” Jones said. “We knew we had this game in our hands.”
Neither team could get much offense going throughout the third quarter, but the Tigers kept the ball on the Mustangs’ side of the field throughout. An injured Graham was carried off the field by two teammates but eventually returned to action.
The Tigers finally broke through when a horrible Mustangs’ punt from the end zone skidded through the line of scrimmage and put the ball on the Mustang’s 12-yard line. On the next play, Bagley blasted through a hole on the left side for the final margin with 23 seconds left in the third.
The Mustangs made one last stab at tying the game in the fourth quarter, but a rejuvenated Graham was stopped short on fourth-and-goal at the 5 and turned the ball over on downs at 7:45.
Phillip Moreland’s pick of Graham on the Mustangs' next-to-last drive effectively ended the game at 1:44 of the fourth.
Cleveland Heights 0 13 7 0 20
Maple Heights 12 0 0 0 12
Maple Heights – McCane 45 run (run failed)
Maple Heights – McCane 3 run (run failed)
Cleveland Heights – Gibson 4 pass from Jones (Brown kick)
Cleveland Heights – Hudson 22 pass from Jones (kick failed)
Cleveland Heights – Bagley 12 run (Brown kick)