Springfield’s Jeff Tolliver runs the ball against Elder during a Division I state semifinal on Nov. 29, 2019, at Piqua. Bill Lackey/STAFF

Springfield’s historic season ends in state semifinals

No. 9 Cincinnati Elder (12-2) beat the fifth-ranked Wildcats 31-24 in a Division I state semifinal thriller on Friday night at Piqua Alexander Stadium, snapping Springfield’s 11-game winning streak.

Springfield became the fourth team in Clark County football history to advance to the state semifinals, joining Catholic Central (1991, 2007) and Shawnee (2011).

“I’m so proud of the kids and the effort they put forth in the 2019 season,” said Wildcats coach Maurice Douglass said. “They’re going to go out and do great things in life. I’m so proud of them.”

»RELATED: State semifinal scores, boxscores

Wildcats sophomore quarterback Te’Sean Smoot threw for 180 yards and three TD passes. Senior Larry Stephens caught seven passes for 74 yards and two TDs and senior James Wood caught three passes for 55 yards and a TD.

Elder quarterback Matthew Luebbe went 20-for-27 for 218 yards and two TDs through the air and rushed for 116 yards on 24 carries for the Panthers, who’ll play Pickerington Central (13-1) in the D-I state championship game at 8 p.m. Friday night at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton. The Panthers defense were also able to force four Springfield turnovers.

“We knew it would be (a great game),” said Elder coach Doug Ramsey. “To score 31, we were very, very pleased with that with the way they’ve shut people down. To do what we were able to do, I’m very pleased because we did it against a really good football team.”

On Elder’s second possession, Luebbe hit Evan Vollmer from 7 yards out to give the Panthers an early 7-0 lead.

The Wildcats tied the score in the second quarter when Te’Sean Smoot scrambled to his right and found James Wood II behind the defense for a 31-yard TD pass.

“(Smoot) is going to be a really, really good player,” Ramsey said. “For a sophomore to do what he did, he’s a special guy.”

The Wildcats’ Delian Bradley intercepted a pass on the Panthers’ next series. The turnover set up a 19-yard TD pass from Smoot to Stephens to make it 14-7 with 5:44 remaining.

With 18 seconds to go, Elder tied the game on a 7-yard TD pass from Luebbe to Ohio State commit Joe Royer.

The Wildcats held Elder on the first series of the second half, but fumbled the punt, giving the Panthers the ball in Springfield territory. A few plays later, Elder senior Sam Harmeyer hit a 30-yard field goal to take a 17-14 lead.

“They ended up getting us a couple times when we were outflanked and didn’t line up the way we were supposed to,” Douglass said. “We kind of made some adjustments and then we’d get adjusted, but a kid would out of position and they’d get a big play and continue a drive. But you can’t ask anything more from them, they battled to the very end.”

On its next possession, Springfield marched right down the field, tying the score on a 35-yard field goal by Cole Yost.

Early in the fourth quarter, Elder’s Joseph Catania scored on a 1-yard run to give them a 24-17 lead. The Panthers recovered the ensuing onside kick, setting up a 5-yard run by Cooper Johnson to make it 31-17.

“We struggle covering kicks,” Ramsey said. “We’ve been doing that a little bit here and there and we’ve been successful. The way they aligned, we felt like ‘What the heck? They’re going to return the ball out here anyway, so we may as well take a shot.’ Harmeyer put it right where we wanted it and Royer was able to recover it.”

Springfield pulled to within seven at 31-24 on a 15-yard TD pass from Smoot to Stephens midway through the fourth quarter, but the Panthers ran five minutes of clock on their next series, punting the ball back to Springfield with 1:32 remaining.

The Wildcats drove to the Elder 32-yard line, but were unable to send the game to overtime.

“We’ve just gotta make a play here or there,” Douglass said. “The ball just didn’t bounce our way, but I’m proud of them. I’d go to war with anyone of them any day.”

Douglass praised his players effort not just on the field, but in the classroom. The team had 52 players make the honor roll this season.

“Those are the things we’re grateful for,” Douglass said. “We’re grateful for this opportunity to be able to get to this week, but it’s just a process of learning how to handle it and take advantage of the opportunities you have during these types of games.”

The Wildcats coach also thanked the community for their support on the historic journey to their first appearance in the state’s final four.

“We’ll be back,” Douglass said. “We’ll be back new and improved next year.”

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