The finality was brutal for a Madison High School football team that made history this season.
The Mohawks couldn’t close the deal on a trip to the Division V state championship game, completing their first-ever playoff appearance by squandering a 10-0 lead in the last 14 minutes and falling to Wheelersburg 15-10 in a state semifinal Friday night at Chillicothe’s Herrnstein Field.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” said junior nose guard Max Evans, part of a Madison defense that limited the potent Pirates to 182 total yards. “We made it this far. I didn’t like when people called it a Cinderella story. We knew what we were doing the whole time.
“All good things come to an end, and we played a great team. I don’t think we regret anything. All the guys left everything on the field, and I think we’re all really proud of what we’ve done.”
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The Mohawks (11-3) were limited to 122 yards on the ground — they entered the contest averaging 364.5 — as their 10-game winning streak came to an end.
Wheelersburg (14-0) will go after its second state championship next Friday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, facing Pemberville Eastwood (14-0) at 3 p.m.
“We came up short. I don’t have a snazzy cliche for you … I wish I did,” Madison coach Steve Poff said. “My kids fought hard, and you have to face the fact that we played a really, really good team. That was the best team that we had played all year. I feel like we played them better than anybody else has all year. They’re a class act, from the coach to each one of their players and staff members and fans.
“You’re upset about what happened tonight, but so many good feelings and so many positives came out of this. We came a long way from 1-2. I’m just proud of my kids and the way they respond to things and the effort they put in. There’s worse tragedies in the world than losing a high school football game. We’re going to take our 30 days and get back in the weight room and get better.”
Cameron Svarda ran 17 times for 53 yards and Tyler Baumgartner added 32 yards on 10 carries for the Mohawks. Quarterback Mason Whiteman had a 1-yard touchdown run with 0.4 seconds left in the first half to give his team a 7-0 lead at the break.
That TD was set up by a Whiteman interception, and teammate Evan Crim also picked off Pirates quarterback Trent Salyers on the third play of the third quarter. Madison gained possession at the WHS 6, but had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Graham Reich.
The Mohawks’ Levi McMonigle recovered his third fumble in the last three games on Wheelersburg’s next possession, but the Pirates kept it a 10-point game when Evan Dahm intercepted a Whiteman pass.
Wheelersburg turned a Madison fumble into a 22-yard field goal by Jalen Miller with 1:50 left in the third stanza, and the Pirates got a 17-yard touchdown pass from Trent Salyers to Justin Salyers just over three minutes later.
Whiteman had boomed a 62-yard punt from deep in his own territory, but a penalty forced Madison to replay the down, and Whiteman couldn’t handle the punt snap and got stopped short on a run for the first down. The Pirates missed the extra point and still trailed 10-9, but they went ahead for good on Xander Carmichael’s 2-yard TD run with 7:09 left.
The Mohawks’ last three possessions ended with a fake punt that failed to produce a first down and two interceptions. Reid Davis threw those picks after Whiteman moved to wide receiver — Whiteman came off the field holding his arm early in the fourth period, and Poff conceded that he was hurt.
“He was, but he’s also dynamic out there catching the ball, so it was a combination of things,” Poff said of inserting Davis at QB. “Mason’s a tough kid. I don’t have the words to tell you what he means to our team.”
Tanner Holden picked off Davis with 1:33 remaining, and Cole Lowery’s interception with 7.5 seconds left sealed the win for Wheelersburg.
“What a way to go out and earn a victory tonight,” Pirates coach Rob Woodward said. “Hats off to Madison. They did an outstanding job of taking away some things we wanted to do.
“We didn’t help ourselves. We dropped some balls, which is uncharacteristic of us. That’s why you have two sides of the ball and you have four quarters to play. Our kids stayed after it and kept fighting.”
Trent Salyers was 11 of 21 for 128 yards for the Pirates. Wheelersburg managed just 54 rushing yards, led by Dominic Reyes (nine carries, 21 yards).
Carmichael, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebacker and tight end, ran seven times for 20 yards in the second half. The numbers weren’t huge, but they were important to the Pirates’ comeback.
“That’s just a great defensive game right there,” Carmichael said. “We didn’t need to change our defense at halftime because we were doing just fine. It was just bad field position in the first half, and in the second half we finally got the field position we wanted.
“We knew they were a tough, hard-nosed team, so we prepared all week by just grinding and grinding. All we had to do was stop the run.”
And what about his touchdown?
“I’m going straight over people. That’s how I’ve got to get yards,” Carmichael said. “It was an amazing feeling, but there’s other people that contributed to that. It was just the best team thing I’ve had all year.”
Penalties stung the Mohawks all night long. They were flagged 11 times for illegal procedure, and Poff said it had nothing to do with the raucous fans that packed the house.
“That was their defense mimicking our snap count,” Poff said. “Great job by them. If the referees don’t call it, it’s legal. I’m not trying to take one thing away from Wheelersburg. They earned it.”
Poff thought he hurt his team with some of the calls he made, especially in the second half. Evans felt Madison relaxed a bit after taking the 10-0 lead.
“We almost thought we had it in the bag or something,” Evans said. “Momentum is a crazy thing, and the penalties really didn’t help us. Things just swung their way in the final two quarters.”
Evans and Cole Pelgen had sacks for the Mohawks. Offensively, Davis was 1 of 4 through the air for 4 yards (on a completion to Whiteman) and Whiteman was 0 of 3.
Poff said he wasn’t surprised by Madison’s postseason run.
“I knew the sky was the limit,” he said. “I thought that we would dictate how we went with our play and our physicality and our attitude and our effort. Really, the kids probably played good enough to win tonight. The responsibility falls on me to lead guys through that, and I came up short. I feel terrible about it. I’m going to work on that and try to get better.”
Wheelersburg has been to the playoffs 29 times, but the Pirates are headed to the state finals for just the second time. They won the Division IV title in 1989.
“I am so psyched,” Woodward said. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I got into coaching, and our players have been working towards it. When you believe in something and you work hard for it, good things happen. That’s what I told our kids tonight before we took the field, and they continued to work hard and good things happened.”
M: Mason Whiteman 1 run (Graham Reich kick)
M: Reich 28 field goal
W: Jalen Miller 22 field goal
W: Justin Salyers 17 pass from Trent Salyers (Kick failed)
W: Xander Carmichael 2 run (Run failed)