Success in high school sports has always been an accomplishment that can be shared by an entire community. The way in which children are brought up has everything to do with how dedicated and coachable they are. That, along with several other factors, are criminally underrated when it comes to achieving success in anything, and in this case, in high school football. That's why places with solid foundations are usually the ones whose schools traditionally go far in the playoffs. If you were good five years ago and are still good now, you aren't doing it with the same group of kids. That said, when that foundation is laid and expectations are set, it makes it an awful lot easier to progress than those in areas where it is absent.
Now, in 2020, the ability to play at this stage of the high school football is an even bigger community accomplishment. This isn't just a normal week 10, which usually signals the final regular season game for most (if not all) of the schools in Ohio. For a selecvt few this year, it's the fourth round of the OHSAA football playoffs. On top of being good enough to make it through three playoffs games, the main thing is that every school who earned the right to play this week would have done so by keeping their entire team & coaching staff safe, healthy, and free from the infamous Covid-19 virus that has cause a global pandemic.
In Warren G. Harding's case, week 9's obstacle was a hurdle that proved to be too high for them just four weeks prior in Austintown Fitch, who used a fourth quarter comeback to defeat the Raiders 25-21. Even at the start of Friday's game, the Falcons applied constant pressure and after a scoreless first quarter, they scored ten in the second frame to take a 10-0 halftime lead. While a deep Harding drive late in the first half failed to result in any points, the Raiders took the little momentum they built and multiplied it ten fold in the third quarter. It began with a career-high 62-yard kickoff return from Harding senior Mar'Kwuan Brown that set that his offense the ball at the Fitch 34-yard line. On the ensuing play, junior Brysen Powell ran it into the end zone and Jake Daugherty's successful ectra point made the score 10-7 a mere 18 seconds into the second half. Thanks to an inspired effort by the Raider defense that forced a three-and-out, the offense came back on the field to take care of some more business as they gave the Falcon defense a heavy dose of Powell. Then, at the 8:02 mark of the period, senior quarterback Elijah Taylor found his classmate DeAveion "Nutty" Burgess on a back should route for a 15 yard touchdown to give his team a 14-10 lead that they wouldn't relinquish. Five minutes later, Taylor added a 3-yard TD run and after Daughterty handled his kicking duties with 3:48remaining in the game, the Raiders put the cherry on top of a 24-0 takeover to close the game.
Enough can't be said about the Harding defense, which included big hits and a near "pick six" for Brown. In all, they held Fitch to 228 total yards and on the unit's final play of the night, they sealed the deal with an interception in the end zone by Emarion "Tank" Perkins, who also delivered several vicious hits on the night. Kincaid Tyson (2.5), Reggie Watson (1.5), and Jabari Felton all registered sacks while Marco Patierno (1.5), Reggie Watson, and Chester Adams also made stops in the Fitch offensive backfield. Despite the hand that the Raiders were dealt early on, they turned their poker face into a royal flush in the second half and showed the entire region what they are capable of. They'll need to do the same this week against a solid program that ended one of the more promising seasons in Harding just a few years ago.
Hudson was awarded the third seed in this year's Region 5 playoffs. That's ironic because in 2016, Harding was the third seed when then-fourth seeded Hudson stunned the Raiders 24-21 in the Regional Final. That said, the Explorers' program isn't exactly a stranger to the "underdog" role as once knocked off Mentor and Cleveland St. Ignatius in the same postseason while they were competing within Division I- Region 1. No, these type of accomplsihments don't just happen every year, but as I opened up with, when you build your youth up the proper way off the field and stay the course on it, you can achieve great things on the gridiron. Without having ever stepped foot in the city of Hudson, I can tell by their results that their methods of building their youth up. Last decade, they went 84-34 with eight of their programs 13 all-time playoff appearances and three appearances in the state semi final. As I eluded to earlier, their peak came in 2014 when they finished 13-1 in their run while competing among the traditional Division 1- Region 1 powerhouses.
With the tradition that Harding has, we know how important it is for one generation of athletes to inspire the next. Now, today's young men from Hudson spent their first full decade alive witnessing them go 84-34. With the bar for them set high, they responded by winning all eight of their games thus far in 2020. Their 35-28 overtime triumph over Painseville Riverside is their only victory that wasn't decided by double digits. That said, it gave the Explorers to respond to adversity that they hadn't dealt with in the previous seven weeks as senior quarterback Jacob Paltani added to his impressive resume with 256 total yards (201 passing & 55 rushing) and two touchdowns as Hudson rallied from a 21-7 second quarter deficit. Their main protector up front is senior offensive tackle Kevin Toth Jr., who is committed to Rutgers. They're armed with "Mr. Reliable" himself in senior kicker Jake Vidmar, who has now made an OHSAA football record 116 consecutive extra points while punter Caleb Junko is known to switch the field position very well. Other key weapons for head coach Jeff Gough include versatile running back Aiden Lal and wide receivers Cade Tonozzi and Colin Pierce. Two of the Explorers key defensive players include linebacker Nick Jackson and defensive back Ryan Evans.
Harding is coming off a huge win over a team that beat them four weeks ago. Now, they'll look to knock off a program that ended the school's season four years ago. Time will tell how that goes, but expect strong efforts from both squads.
Good luck Raiders!