For 47 minutes and 57.5 seconds, all Kenton Ridge wanted was a chance at the lead. Suddenly and inexplicably the Cougars got it.
Trailing Bellevue by seven points, the Cougars, who never led, watched the Redmen take a knee three times to run out the clock. But on fourth down there was unexpected four- to five-second differential between the game clock and the play clock because the officials quickly reset the ball.
So Bellevue quarterback Alec Foos, who had slithered his way for 142 yards on 40 carries, took the snap, took a step back and fell to the ground with 2.5 seconds left at his 42-yard line. Instead of staying on his feet long enough for the clock to run out, Foos gave the Cougars the chance they wanted to force overtime.
Noah Schleinitz lofted a beautiful spiral into the middle of the end zone near a couple of Cougars, but the ball was knocked around and landed on the turf. And a successful Cougars season that beat the odds of finding enough good players to take the place of a lot of good ones who graduated a year ago, was heartbreakingly over.
After trailing 22-0 at halftime, the Cougars made big plays before finally falling 28-21 to Bellevue (10-2) in a Division IV, Region 12 semifinal.
“We wanted to put ourselves in a situation where we would be there at the end, and our kids did that,” Cougars coach Joe Marratta said.
How the Cougars (8-4) did that will be good things to reminisce about some day, but after this emotional loss the what-ifs will be hard to forget. So will a first half that Bellevue dominated with the running of Foos and halfback Bryce Ray. Out of the shotgun and pistol, with receivers spreading out the defense and with multiple formations, the Redmen nickle-and-dimed the Cougars’ defense.
Three time-consuming drives ended in a Foos touchdown pass of 11 yards and Foos runs of two and four yards. The Cougars had the ball four times but ran only 17 plays.
“With the no-huddle offense and less than 40 guys practicing, it’s hard to simulate what they do,” Marratta said. “In the second half we were able to get up to game speed and get into our adjustments much quicker.”
The defense got stingy and Jayden Davis started to run downhill. On the third play of the half, Schleinitz threw deep and was intercepted by A.J. Perry. But Jordan Bailey, who was the intended receiver, stripped the ball from Perry and recovered it at the Bellevue 25. Two plays later, Davis, who had been held to 25 yards in the first half, broke loose for a 23-yard touchdown run.
The Cougars forced a punt and were on the move again when Davis fumbled at his 30. Foos soon scored from the three and the Redmen led 28-7 with 2:18 left in the third quarter.
“If we could’ve closed the gap and got within one possession, you still would’ve seen an exciting finish that just might’ve given us a little better chance,” Marratta said.
Davis and the Cougars kept coming. His 33-yard burst got the ball to the five. From the one, he was stood up at the line, spun off and dived into the end zone to cut the deficit to 28-14 with 10:48 left.
“We didn’t adjust anything,” Marratta said of the second-half turnaround. “Our kids had to get low pad level and come out and play flat-back football. Their kids blew us off the ball and were getting to the ball, and one of the things that we’ve been able to do over the season is wear people down in the second half.”
Bellevue drove to the KR 14 before turning the ball over on downs with 3:39 left. A 33-yard halfback pass by Davis to Tyler Batten sparked the drive that ended with Schleinitz’s nine-yard touchdown pass to Josh Ricket with 1:18 left. But 28-21 was as close as the Cougars would get.
“Once we got up to playoff and game speed in the second half, our kids ended on a good note,” Marratta said.
Davis finished his 2,000-plus yard season with 123 on 19 carries. He caught two passes for 27 yards on the final scoring drive and was stalwart on defense.
“Everything he does is full go,” Marratta said. “He’s the type of guy that’s been playing hurt for three weeks now. You can’t get him off the field, and he wouldn’t tell you one way or the other if he couldn’t go. That’s his type of leadership.”
Last year’s team shared the Kenton Trail Division title in the Central Buckeye Conference and made a second straight playoff appearance. Marratta knew he had Davis and Caleb King to anchor both lines. But he and his staff had a lot of holes to fill and a lot of seniors like Batten and Ricket had to perform at high levels as first-year starters to make it three straight years.
“You might have the best kid on the field, but I’ve always said if seven, eight, nine, 10 and 11 aren’t anything, you’ll never get anywhere,” Marratta said. “We had 11 good high school football players on offense and defense. As a complete group this is one of the finest football teams I’ve had the opportunity to coach.”
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