CANTON – Big Red’s thrilling run in the Division IV playoffs came to an end on Black Friday at Fawcett Stadium.
Youngstown Cardinal Mooney jumped out to an early lead, then took full advantage of Big Red turnovers and penalties to earn a 37-7 victory in the Division IV semifinals. The Cardinals, now 10-4, advance to next week’s title game where they will meet Clarksville Clinton-Massie, the defending champion.
Big Red, which entered the postseason as the eighth seed but rolled to the Region 13 title, finishes with a 9-5 mark.
Mooney, thanks to a 47-yard return of the opening kick by Mark Handel, began its first possession at the Big Red 43. It took six plays before quarterback Jon Saadey crossed the goal on a one-yard plunge. Zak Kennedy nailed the conversion kick.
The score moved to 14-0 with 3:41 remaining in the initial period after Handel picked off a Mandela Lawrence-Burke pass and raced 39 yards to complete the pick six. Kennedy again added the point from placement.
“We got beat by a very good football team,” Reno Saccoccia said following the final four defeat. “We had a horrible start, giving them that kick return and then giving them some easy plays. But our defense played well after that. We just were never able to develop any chemistry on offense.”
Big Red’s best opportunity of the opening half came early in the second quarter after its defense forced a punt. Starting at its 46, the Red moved to the Cardinal 43 thanks to an 11-yard sprint by Johnnie Blue. On the next snap, Lawrence-Burke hit fellow sophomore Devin Ferguson for what appeared to be a big gainer.
Unfortunately, Big Red was nailed with a holding penalty, nullifying the gain.
“Early on our defense did a great job of keeping them out of the end zone,” Mooney’s P.J. Fecko said. “We did a good job of making plays and putting them in negative situations. The pick six didn’t hurt matters.”
Kennedy booted field goals of 38 and 43 yards to finish the first half scoring.
Big Red held Mooney’s ground attack in check during the opening 24 minutes as the Cardinals could manage just 51 yards. Saadey, however, completed seven of 11 passing attempts for 93 stripes.
Offensively, Saccoccia’s club ran 25 plays for just 57 stripes. Mooney, on the other hand, gained 144 on 27 snaps.
“The first thing coming in was we wanted to make sure we were sound.” Fecko continued. “It’s no secret Steubenville is a really good football team. They’re well-coached. You have to make sure you have everything covered because they’re going to take advantage of any weakness or guy out of position. That was the first part. The second part was about how much pressure we could get. Our guys were able to do so.”
Another Big Red turnover along with a costly penalty helped the Cardinals go up 27-0 midway through the third stanza. The Red defense forced a Mooney punt but the Steubenville receiver was unable to hang on, the Cardinals recovering at the 21. A personal foul moved the pigskin to the 10 and C.J. Amill sprinted in from there.
The Red got on the board at the 1:20 mark of the third, marching 75 yards in 13 plays. Sophomore Dimitri Collaros engineered the drive, throwing for 35 stripes. Blue rumbled for 38 and got the score via a seven-yarde burst up the gut. John Paul Duff made it 27-7.
Mooney’s lead increased to 30-7 thanks to Kennedy’s third field goal of the contest, this one coming from 37 yards. The Cardinal scoring drive started at the Big Red 31 thanks to a short punt. A personal foul against the Red placed the ball at the 14. Key defensive plays by Kai McClurg and William Harvey kept Mooney from getting another six.
Big Red’s second lost fumble resulted in Mooney’s final score. Saadey fought his way in from four yards away.
“We knew we couldn’t play smash-face with them,” Saccoccia stated. “We had to do some boots and waggles and things like that. Unfortunately, we just didn’t execute.
“I did a poor job of just having them ready. Games are not won with the body, games are won with mind, heart, soul and passion. A coach’s job is to make sure the players minds are in the right spot and their hearts are prepared. The coach also must bring the passion out in his players.
“If the coach doesn’t bring that passion out, then he didn’t do his job. I didn’t do my job this week”
Mooney finished the night with 243 yards (143 rushing and 100 passing). Big had 121 (49 via the ground and 82 through the air). Blue paced the Red with 69 rushing stripes. Sophomore Niko Petrides had three catches for 35 yards.
Bryan Pierro led the Big Red defensively with 9.5 tackles while Blue had nine and McClurg 6.5
“I told the guys right after the game that I’ll never forget this team,” Saccoccia added. “All I wanted them to do was think back to when we were 5-4.
“It was a very tough loss, nobody likes to lose but I love this team-5-4, that’s all I am going to say. The 5-4 record will stick in my mind every time I think about the 2013 team.”
Saccoccia continued by saying he appreciates the effort given by his coaches, the players and the Big Red parents.
“Our coaches give their heart and soul to football,” he commented. “Our players give their heart and soul and so do the parents. I appreciate all three levels.”