BERLIN CENTER - One team was guaranteed to exit in Friday's SouthernLocal-Western Reserve showdown with its playoff hopes ruined, and the Blue Devils were determined that it wasn't going to be them.
Playing in his last home game, senior running back Tim Cooper rolled up 251 yards of total offense and scored four touchdowns as Western Reserve dispatched Southern, 28-6, Friday.
The Blue Devils (6-2, 5-0) have won six consecutive games after an 0-2 start, and they now find themselves in sole possession of the ITCL lower tier lead. With two weeks to go in the regular season, Western Reserve is also in strong position to make it back to the playoffs after advancing to the Division VI state semifinals a season ago.
"The playoffs are our ultimate goal, and the seniors would absolutely not accept a loss this week that put us out of contention in front of our home fans," Cooper said.
Southern Local (5-3, 3-2) is now effectively out of the running for the ITCL lower tier crown and probably playoff contention. After coming agonizingly close to a playoff berth last season, the loss was a tough pill to swallow for the Indians.
"This loss really hurts our seniors," Southern Local coach Mike Skrinjar said. "They have put so much work into the last two seasons, and to come up short of the playoffs twice is tough for them."
Cooper outshone star running back Mike McKenzie of Southern, who was coming off a school-record 315-yard performance last week against Wellsville. McKenzie finished with 122 yards on 14 carries, but the majority of that yardage came on two carries, as Southern's normally explosive offense failed to gain traction most of the night.
"I was very impressed with how physical they were on defense" Skrinjar said. "Their defensive line gave Luke [quarterback Luke Griffith] very little time to throw, and their secondary made life tough on our recievers."
After two Cooper touchdowns gave Western Reserve a 14-6 lead, the senior running back made perhaps the biggest play of the night on defense. Midway through the second quarter, Southern drove the ball from their own 28 to the Western Reserve 12. Although used sparingly on defense, Cooper was inserted at outside linebacker on 2nd-and-5 and promptly made a diving interception in the end zone to thwart the drive and swing momentum. It was Cooper's sixth interception of the year, one shy of the school record.
"I just read the quarterback's eyes the whole way and was able to step in front of the reciever and make the play," said Cooper.
The Blue Devils promptly drove right back down the field, with Cooper again providing the exclamation point with a 6 yard touchdown run behind a gaping hole to make it 21-6 at halftime.
"The line did an amazing job tonight," Cooper said. "Those were the biggest holes we've had to run behind all year, and Southern is one of the better teams we played. I give all the credit to those guys up front."
The Indians never seriously threatened in the second half, as Cooper tacked on one more touchdown, this one a 34 yard pass from quarterback Nick Allison in the third quarter.
"Tim Cooper is one of the best overall athletes we've ever had come through this program," Western Reserve coach Andy Hake said. "He doesn't have the explosiveness of Nick Blower from Crestview, but he makes up for it with his size and instincts. He is like having another coach on the field."
Although Western Reserve has first place all to themselves, Hake is refusing to entertain any thoughts of a playoff berth or league crown.
"Starting out 0-2 really narrowed our focus," Hake said. "We have prepared for each and every game since then like it's a playoff game, and next week at Wellsville is no different. We then hope to peak in week 10 against Columbiana."
Meanwhile, on the Southern side of things, Skrinjar says the focus is now on using the rest of this season as an appropriate sendoff for the seniors as well as a building block for years to come.
"We now want to ensure that our seniors and this team ends the year with as good a legacy as possible," said Skrinjar. "We still have the opportunity for a winning season, and we have to treat every game as a learning tool for the future."
The Indians are at Leetonia next Friday, while Western Reserve travels to Wellsville.