Knights break through for first regional championship

Knights break through for first regional championship
Justin Smith

Like he has every game this season, Korben Felton (54) made a number of special plays for West Holmes in its Div. III, Region 10 final, but none more than when he wrangled down Holy Name quarterback Jayvon Williams on a critical fourth-down play late in the game, helping secure a win for the Knights.

                        

The West Holmes Knights could sense history as they stood on the precipice of a state semifinal berth on Friday, Nov. 19 at Jim Schalmo Field in Canal Fulton.

The only thing standing between the Knights and their dream of the school’s first-ever regional title was a hungry Parma Heights Holy Name team that started the season slow but was on a big-time roll, having defeated Div. III Region 10’s No. 1 ranked team Norton 28-0 and then upsetting Padua Franciscan 28-21 in the regional semifinal.

All the Knights had to do was play the same type of football that had seen them use a bend-but-don’t-break, opportunistic defense and an explosive offense that takes care of the ball.

What ensued was a microcosm of the season, resulting in a 31-21 WHHS victory that helped the team raise the bar, their theme from the start of the season.

“I’m so proud of this team,” head coach Zach Gardner said. “This feels like the culmination of five years of hard work, from where the program was to all the kids, not just this year’s team. The last five years, kids have laid the foundation in making goals and fighting to get to those goals.”

West Holmes did exactly what it has done all year, creating critical turnovers, leaning on the graceful talent of running back Sam Williams-Dixon, the powerful legs of backfield mate Bret Shearer and the guts of quarterback Noah Clark, who played through pain to lead the Knights to victory to move to 14-0.

It wasn’t easy.

The Knights struggled early to defend the talented triumvirate of speedy quarterback Jayvon Williams, gifted wide-out Eric Jones, Jr. and running back Kriztion Sanchez, a 230-pound locomotive.

After stopping the Knights on the opening drive, the Green Wave worked its way to West Holmes’ 36, where Williams bolted around the left end for a 36-yard TD romp. The Knights’ response was swift. After picking up a key fourth-and-2, Williams-Dixon burst through the initial line and raced by the Green Wave for a 44-yard touchdown run to even the score after Nick Ginsburg’s extra point.

Then the opportunistic Knights made their presence felt when Tucker Kaufman flew downfield on the kick, punching the ball from the returner. Walker Graham picked it up on the 22 and rumbled to the 2-yard line. It took the Knights four downs, but on fourth-and-goal, Williams-Dixon took a direct snap from the wildcat formation and found pay-dirt over the left end for a 14-7 WHHS lead.

Sanchez showed off his powerful running game along with surprising speed by rolling 30 yards to even the score at 14, but again the Knights answered. A flea-flicker got them into Holy Name territory. Then on fourth-and-4 from 37, the Knights ran another trick play, this one a reverse to Williams-Dixon for a first down. Several plays later Shearer showed off just how stubborn he can be, refusing to be tackled on a 13-yard score that saw him carry multiple defenders into the end zone from the 5-yard line.

Before the half, the Knights were dealt a tough blow when an errant snap got by Williams, who raced back and tried to fall on it but missed the ball, and West Holmes appeared to recover the loose pigskin. However, the officials blew the ball dead when it appeared Williams had collected it. West Holmes eventually forced a punt, and the Knights cashed in as time in the half expired, with Ginsburg drilling a critical 25-yard field goal that gave the Knights a 24-14 half-time lead.

“That was huge,” Gardner said of the field goal. “This deep in the playoffs, you’ve got to capitalize and score points when you have the opportunity, and we feel like we are a very tough team to defeat when we get up two scores.”

The third quarter brought one of the biggest challenges of the Knights season. The Green Wave marched down the field on their opening drive on a 43-yard catch that culminated with Williams darting in untouched from 5 yards out to draw Holy Name to within 24-21. West Holmes then had the ball for three plays and 38 seconds and was forced to punt. Holy Name took over at its own 44 and scored on a 56-yard screen pass, but the score was nullified by a holding penalty. The Knights caught a break, and on fourth-and-2, the Green Wave decided to punt, pinning West Holmes on its own 5-yard line.

“We made some timely stops defensively, and in 2021, that’s what football is about,” Gardner said.

Needing a big play, West Holmes got one. Clark uncorked a deep ball to Williams-Dixon, who climbed the ladder and outleaped a pair of defenders clinging all over him to gain possession on Holy Name’s 46. Big runs by Clark and Shearer got the Knights inside the 20, and Williams-Dixon ran it to the six. The Knights appeared to score, but a touchdown pass was called back on an illegal man downfield call that irked Gardner.

Clark found Shearer for a 6-yard pass to get back to the five, and then he lobbed a perfect pass to Williams-Dixon on the left sideline, and Ginsburg’s kick gave WHHS a 31-21 lead.

The Knights then turned to the defense to finish the deal, and the D came through. Three times Holy Name tried to get closer, and three times they failed. The first series came up empty on four plays. The second was stopped on a sensational tackle on fourth down when Blake McCombs stuffed Williams 1 yard shy of a first down. Finally, with time winding down, Holy Name had one last chance. After Tucker Kaufman had a game-clinching interception glance off his fingertips, one play later he did come up with the big pick, setting the school record for interceptions in a season while more importantly sealing the victory that advanced the Knights to the state semifinals for the first time in school history.

The win was a perfect example of exactly how the Knights have remained perfect on the season, with many players stepping up to make key plays.

“We are very blessed in the skills positions,” Gardner said. “Sometimes it’s hard to spread the touches around to all the guys who deserve touches, but our kids are selfless. They understand the goals, and they understand when their number is called it’s time to go make plays.”

Gardner said this group continues to understand its roles and execute plays when it matters the most, and that is why they became the first team in school history to march into the state semifinals.

“The clock could not run fast enough at the end of the game,” Gardner said. “I just grabbed Noah and said, ‘Dude, let’s just watch this together and hope for the best.’ Coach Golic and the defense went out and shut them down at the end of the game. That’s what you have to do to win championships.”


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