SHARONVILLE – Valley View High School first-year head football coach Matt King embraced every senior he could find after the team broke from its post-game huddle for the last time this season.
King was the third coach those seniors played under, and he wanted them to know how big of an impact they had in such a memorable season, despite the disappointing way it ended.
Valley View gave up 28 unanswered points over the final 30 minutes, and Ironton sealed a 35-21 win Friday with two fourth-quarter interceptions in a Division V state semifinal at Princeton’s Jake Sweeney Automotive Stadium. The Spartans (13-2) had gone from finishing 5-6 in 2021 to qualifying for the program’s first final four in 20 years. Ironton is back in the championship game for the third time in four years.
“Making it to the final four in the state is a hard thing to do in any given year, but the things that have happened, for these seniors, the four years that they’ve gone through has been constant change and constant adversity, and the fact that they did that is incredible,” King said. “No one expected us to be at this spot, and they worked to get to that spot and no one can ever take it away from them. So, I’m super proud of them. It means a lot, it means a lot for those kids, and they did a great job.”
Until the Tigers’ game-changing touchdown to open the second half, it looked like Valley View might be heading to a state final for the first time since the school’s 1997 championship season. The Spartans had scored 21 consecutive points in the first and second quarters, and for a while it looked like the momentum was in their favor.
Valley View, which had won 12 straight games, got off to a shaky start with Jake Clark fumbling on the first play from scrimmage to give Ironton a short field, which the Tigers took advantage of for a quick score. However, the Spartans responded with Clark making amends for his turnover to tie the game on a 1-yard touchdown run after Austin Stidham caught a deep ball from Caden Henson, despite slipping.
Then, Bryce Reed intercepted Ironton quarterback Tayden Carpenter at the 11-yard line and returned it across midfield. The Spartans ended up turning it over on downs, but managed a fourth-down stop on defense the next drive, and Stidham gave them the lead on a 42-yard touchdown pass from Henson to make it 14-7 with 8:30 left in the second quarter.
Stidham found the endzone again less than two minutes later after scooping up a fumbled snap on a punt attempt and returning it three yards for a touchdown, giving Valley View a 14-point cushion. It didn’t seem possible then the Spartans would be shut out the rest of the way.
Ironton closed the gap with 5:04 left in the second quarter on Jaquez Keyes’ 3-yard touchdown run, and opened the second half with a bang. The Tigers tied the game on Keyes’ 72-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
Valley View had a chance to regain the lead the next drive but Henson had a pass intercepted in the end zone. The Tigers pulled ahead two plays later on a 53-yard pass from Carpenter to Shaun Terry, who broke several tackles on the way into the endzone for the 28-21 advantage with 1:42 left in the third quarter.
Henson was intercepted again, this time by Cole Freeman near midfield, with 9:52 left, and Keyes scored his third touchdown to add more cushion to Ironton’s lead, and Brayden Schrek picked off a pass with 2:53 remaining to seal it. Henson finished with 182 yards passing, Carpenter had 247 yards passing for Ironton, and Keyes amassed 152 yards on 13 carries.
Ironton, which finished as the state runner-up in 2019 and 2020, will face Canfield South Range (15-0), which beat Liberty Center 35-0, in the state championship Dec. 2 at 10:30 a.m. at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton. The Tigers, playing in their 11th state final overall, won titles in 1979 and 1989.