HILLIARD — It was an ending filled with anguish for Madison High School’s football team Saturday night.
The Mohawks stormed back from a 24-6 halftime deficit against defending Division V state champion Wheelersburg in the Region 20 title game, but came up just short of the end zone in the final seconds and lost 24-16 at Hilliard Darby Stadium.
“We didn’t give up. I’m proud of that,” said senior split end Noah Lehman, who scored both Madison touchdowns. “Do I think we should have beaten them? Yeah, but that’s the way it goes. They’re good. They’re hard-nosed. They’re physical. We came up short, simple as that.”
A packed house watched and screamed as the two teams squared off for the second time in two seasons. The Pirates defeated the Mohawks 15-10 in last year’s state semifinals.
The rematch was a frantic, emotional affair down the stretch. Madison coach Steve Poff declined to comment immediately after the game, fearing that he’d probably say something he’d regret.
The senior-laden Mohawks finished 12-1. Wheelersburg will take a 12-1 mark into next weekend’s state semifinal against Johnstown-Monroe at Jackson.
“I’ll be honest … I’m just a little cluttered trying to process what all happened at the end,” Pirates coach Rob Woodward said. “I thought it was an outstanding effort by our kids. Our guys played so physical tonight. I think it’s attributed to the job that they do in the weight room.
“That’s a great football team,” he added of Madison. “My hat’s off to Coach Poff and the job that those guys did. Both sides dealt with more officiating than what you typically see at this level, but we both had to experience that throughout. It was just a great high school football game.”
The Mohawks had a slight edge in yardage (252-248) and showed some grit after halftime in the penalty-marred affair. Madison got flagged 13 times for 140 yards, while Wheelersburg had 11 penalties for 100 yards.
Pirates quarterback Trent Salyers was called for intentional grounding in the end zone with 7:35 left in the third stanza, giving the Mohawks a safety that cut the margin to 24-8.
Lehman took the ensuing free kick 74 yards for a touchdown, and quarterback Mason Whiteman ran for the two-point conversion. In 13 seconds, the score went from 24-6 to 24-16.
“After we got that safety, I knew I had to get in the end zone,” Lehman said. “All night I’ve had open gaps and guys were just one-arm tackling and I’m not breaking them. I just knew on that one I was running as hard as I could and no one was bringing me down. One guy I think got ahold of my towel, but I just stiff-armed him to the ground.”
Wheelersburg’s next drive resulted in a 44-yard field-goal attempt by Jalen Miller that was just short.
Madison got three more possessions. The first ended in an interception by the Pirates’ Avery Donini. The second ended in a punt. And the third ended in the shadow of the WHS end zone.
Taking possession with 3:29 remaining at their own 48-yard line, the Mohawks made it all the way to the 4 in the closing seconds. Evan Crim lost 2 yards on first-and-goal from the 4, Whiteman threw an incompletion into the end zone on second down, and a Crim run play was stuffed as the game ended.
“We couldn’t have had a worse third quarter for ourselves,” Woodward said. “That’s football. Penalties can be called at any given point either way. There were a lot of opportunities that led to points for both teams.”
Crim paced Madison with 75 yards on 17 carries, and Whiteman ran 11 times for 57 yards and connected with Lehman for a 45-yard touchdown in the first period. Defensive tackle Max Evans added an interception.
“This game meant a lot to me after not playing last year and watching us lose to them,” said Lehman, who had 189 all-purpose yards. “I know for a fact they were reading the run on the touchdown pass because the corner broke down and I was wide open. Mason just lofted it to me, and it was easy.”
The Pirates tallied all 24 of their points in the second quarter. Evan Horsley and Makya Matthews both ran for touchdowns, and Matthews snagged a 50-yard TD pass from Salyers.
“I knew there were a lot of expectations on me, so I tried to make the most of them,” said Matthews, a junior slot receiver and free safety who collected 311 all-purpose yards last weekend against Jamestown Greeneview. “I like having the pressure on me. I like having the ball in my hands when we need a big play.”
Miller closed the first half with a 28-yard field goal. He missed from 39 yards, but got another chance after a Madison penalty.
Momentum switched sides in the second half. Lehman said the Mohawks were an angry and motivated crew at intermission.
“We knew we had to come out and punch them in the face or we weren’t going to get back in this,” Lehman said. “We put up 44 points last week in one half, so we knew we could do it. We just had to believe in ourselves.”
Matthews said some of the Pirates might have thought the game was over at the break.
“We just didn’t come out with the energy we needed, and they capitalized on that,” Matthews said. “We came out a little flat, and the offensive line showed it a little bit. But I can’t just put it on them. Everybody was a little bit flat.
“Give (Madison) a lot of credit. We knew they were going to be one of the toughest teams we’ll play this year. But we all had faith we could pull through. There’s a lot of relief and everybody’s excited, but we’ve just got to remember we have two games left. We can’t get too high or too low.”
Wheelersburg was limited to 57 rushing yards, but had 191 through the air. Tanner Holden, a 6-foot-6 senior, was a pass-catching force with 11 receptions for 82 yards.
The Pirates’ first touchdown followed a successful fake punt. Their second score came after Woodward took a 36-yard Miller field goal off the board in the wake of a Madison penalty for running into the kicker.
“That’s what happens in situational football,” Woodward said. “You’ve got to make sure that you do things and have your guys ready. We spend more time working on special teams at times than maybe we do offense or defense.”
M: Noah Lehman 45 pass from Mason Whiteman (Run failed)
W: Evan Horsley 1 run (Jalen Miller kick)
W: Makya Matthews 14 run (Miller kick)
W: Matthews 50 pass from Trent Salyers (Miller kick)
W: Miller 28 field goal
M: Safety, Salyers called for intentional grounding in the end zone
M: Lehman 74 free kick return (Whiteman run)
Thank you for reading the Journal-News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to exclusive deals and newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Journal-News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.