For the briefest of moments, the clash between Warren G. Harding and Austintown Fitch on the gridiron this past Friday was reminiscent of their playoff matchup last season. Nearly a year ago to the day on October 23, 2020, Fitch quarterback Devin Sherwood threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Evans that put the Falcons up 10-0 with 8:07 remaining until halftime of the third round matchup. However, the Raiders got things rolling quickly in the second half as Brysen Powell's 34-yard touchdown run came just 18 seconds into the third quarter to cut the deficit to three. It was the first seven of the 24 unanswered points that Harding closed the game with as they left Austintown with a 24-10 playoff victory.
This past Friday, Sherwood's 44-yard touchdown pass to Cam Smith at the 9:43 mark of the second quarter gave Fitch yet another 10-0 lead. Just as it did last year, a light bulb lit up within the Raiders as quarterback Dalys Jett led them to 21 unanswered points in just over seven minutes of game time. The second of those scores was a 20-yard touchdown pass to senior Konyae Redd. It was Jett's 20th touchdown pass of 2021, which sets a new Harding single-season record. He added to that in the fourth quarter when he threw another 20-yard score. This time, it was to Tyirq Ivory, which gave him eight touchdown grabs for the season, and made the score 35-33 in favor of Fitch with 4:28 remaining in the game.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, Sherwood and company weren't finished scoring yet as sophomore D.J. Williams would cap off a huge night with a game-sealing 24-yard touchdown run with 1:37 remaining in the contest to make the score 42-33, which would eventually be the final. His workload for the night included 18 carries for 88 yards and two touchdowns while Sherwood added to his record setting career by accounting for 262 yards (212 passing and 50 rushing) and three touchdowns (2 passing & 1 rushing) worth of total offense. Evans finished the night with eight catches for 87 yards, one touchdown, and a huge catch for a successful two-point conversion while Smith hauled in four catches for 85 yards and his touchdown grab. Jett finished with four total touchdowns for Harding as he added a pair of scoring runs to go along with his six-point tosses.
Fitch's efforts on Friday included extremely smart play by their special teams unit. In addition to opening up the scoring with a 22-yard field goal late in the first quarter, junior kicker Josiah Berni kicked the ball off a total of eight times. All of which were short squibs that never made it downfield to Harding's dynamic duo of Tyirq Ivory and Syracuse commit Dom Foster. In fact, Fitch followed up Sherwood's 8-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter with a successful onside kick. Just under two minutes later, Sherwood threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Evans that gave the Falcons an 8-point cushion. Look for the Raiders to pay extra attention on special teams this week to avoid surrendering possessions.
In the minds of Fitch head coach T.J. Parker and his staff, one of two things were going to happen. Harding would either start their drives with great field position or the Falcons would make a play to get the ball back. What he wasn't about to do was give Foster (two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season) or Ivory (averages 30.3 yards per return) any opportunities in the open field. That said, Harding needs to make sure that they create more opportunities of their own for their stud athletes to make plays. They're the first pair of wide receivers in Harding history to both haul for eight touchdowns catches apiece in a season (10 for Foster and 8 for Ivory) and just between the two of them, they've combined for 1,222 receiving yards (Foster- 681; Ivory- 541). That's unheard of for a regular season at Harding, but on Friday night, they only combined for five catches, 69 yards, and one touchdown. That should literally be the worst case scenario stat line for just one of them if the Raiders want to advance to the second round of the Division II-Region 5 playoffs.
On paper, a 5-5 regular season looks pretty average. However, the talent on this Harding squad is far supreme to that. There has been some trial and error and mistakes made along the way, but when they're clicking, they can do some special things and are capable of competing with anybody in the state. On the flip side, Fitch has finally started to get healthy and has their guys playing disciplined, hard-nosed football, especially now that Williams has so much varsity experience under his belt. From a fan's perspective, it's a shame that one of these two teams will have their season ended this week, but to be the best, you have to beat the best. The journey for both teams continues this Friday at Falcon Stadium in Austintown.