Beating a state champion is one thing, but beating two state champions in two weeks may have been asking too much.
The Cleveland Heights football team captured an entire city’s hopes after and earning the last week, but the Tigers looked every bit like nervous first-timers in facing Division I state champion St. Edward on Saturday night.
Despite falling behind early, the Tigers overcame the Eagles’ early dominance and rallied to within a touchdown in the third quarter, but crucial errors down the stretch left them short, 28-14, in the Division I, Region 1 quarterfinals at Crawford Field.
The third-seeded Tigers’ season ends at 9-1 after finishing up a perfect regular season with a Lake Erie League title. St. Edward, seeded sixth, improves to 8-3 and will face its arch-rival, St. Ignatius, next Saturday.
Cleveland Heights head coach Jeff Rotsky had no interest in so-called moral victories after losing to a team some thought would beat his team by three touchdowns. In the immediate aftermath, it’s the missed chances and mistakes that burned hottest in his mind.
“I’m proud of my kids, but I’m not a moral-victory guy and never will be,” Rotsky said. “It’s 21-14. We have the ball one or two times with a chance to tie the game up. We don’t get it and they score late. So it’s very, very, very disappointing because we had a chance.”
Down, 21-14, the Tigers defense smashed down Eagles running back Kenny Butler for a 3-yard loss at the Cleveland Heights’ 25 on a third-and-2 play with 2:23 remaining. The Eagles lined up for a 42-yard field goal, but the Tigers jumped offsides and gave the Eagles a first down. Four plays later, Butler ran off right tackle for a 7-yard touchdown to effectively end the game.
“At the end of the day, we left some monstrous opportunities on the board,” Rotsky said. “Defensively, we didn’t play well in the first half. We played great in the second half, I thought. We made some adjustments that helped. Offensively, we had chances, and we didn’t convert. At the end of the day, you’ve got to convert against a team like this.”
For a long time, Cleveland Heights senior quarterback Bryce Jones will probably remember just missing a wide-open Marcus McShepard streaking open down the sidelines at 4:30 of the third quarter. Had he hit him with the pass, the Tigers would have tied the score at 21.
“I wish it could have ended better. I love this team, this school, this city. I wish we could have given them more, but it wasn’t that kind of year. I just wish them the best for next year,” Jones said.
St. Edward dominated the early going by using its massive offensive line to uproot Cleveland Heights defenders from the Crawford Field grass as Dwayne Aaron finished off a six-play opening drive with a 7-yard run for a 7-0 lead at 9:39.
On the Eagles’ next possession, Aaron ran on 14 of 15 plays as St. Edward drove from its 13 for another touchdown, this one finished up by Aaron’s 1-yard run with 47 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
St. Edward’s bludgeoning ground game continued on its third possession and knocked down Tigers defender Anthony Simmons at the Tigers’ 4, keeping him on the ground for 25 minutes at 10:22 of the second quarter.
Simmons didn’t move initially but was soon able to shake his arms and legs and was placed on a cart and taken to a hospital. Coach Rotsky had no further word on his condition but believes he just had his bell rung, as the old saying goes.
Although Butler swept right for a 6-yard TD run two plays after Simmons’ injury, the delay seemingly gathered the Tigers.
Cleveland Heights held Aaron for no gain on a 4th-and-goal run at the Tigers’ 2 to finally blunt the Eagles’ advances and regained the ball at 5:31 of the second quarter.
On that possession, Cleveland Heights reached its 46 when quarterback Jones threw a backward pass to Shelton Gibson who then launched a forward pass to a wide-open and in-stride McShepard for a 54-yard TD pass that drew the Tigers to 21-6 with 2:21 left in the first half.
Marcus Bagley’s 8-yard run finished off the Tigers’ eight-play opening drive of the second half. Jones hit Gibson for a two-point conversion that pulled them within 21-14 at 9:34, but the Tigers never scored again.
Coach Rick Finotti came away impressed by the Tigers.
“Being an East sider my whole life, I’m very familiar with the program coach Rotsky runs. They do a great job. They have a lot of heart, a lot of pride. They played a good game,” Finotti said.
St. Edward 14 7 0 7 28
Cleveland Heights 0 6 8 0 14
St. Edward - Aaron 7 run (Wilhelm kick)
St. Edward - Aaron 1 run (Wilhelm kick)
St. Edward - Butler 6 run (Wilhelm kick)
Cleveland Heights – McShepard 54 pass from Gibson (kick
Cleveland Heights – Bagley 8 run (Gibson pass from Jones)
St. Edward – Butler 7 run (Wilhelm kick)