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Tough finish for Irish

Youngstown Ursuline running back DeMarcus McElroy tries to hold off Clinton-Massie's Kody Zanete in the Division IV state championship game Friday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. (Morning Journal/Ron FIrth)

CANTON — Youngstown Ursuline always expected to be here. Even amidst all the trials and tribulations of the past few seasons, including injuries and COVID-19, the Fighting Irish felt they were good enough — knew they were good enough to play for a state championship.

They just expected it to end differently.

Ursuline gave up 22 unanswered points in the final 16 minutes to fall to Clinton-Massie, 29-28, Friday in the Division IV state championship game before 5,615 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

“To say I’m incredibly proud of our seniors would be a massive understatement,” Ursuline coach Dan Reardon said. “The momentum shifts within the game were dramatic. We had a lot of momentum in the first half and they obviously had it in the second half and credit to them. They’re a very good football team that knows how to win. I think we had a lot of missed opportunities that will create some ‘what-ifs’ in the back of everyone’s mind.”

Ursuline finishes its season 11-4 as the Division IV state runner-up, while Clinton-Massie claims its third state championship in the last decade and first since going back-to-back in 2012 and 2013.

“I’ll probably never have another opportunity to coach a group of seniors like this for the rest of my life,” Clinton-Massie coach Dan McSurley said. “This will without question go down in history as one of the greatest comeback victories in high school history.”

Down 28-21, the Falcons faced fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 48 seconds left. Falcons quarterback Kody Zantene had the Irish defense fooled on a fake handoff and kept it on a bootleg to walk into the end zone.

After closing the deficit to one, the Falcons opted to go for two and the win.

“I thought we had the momentum of the game in our favor,” McSurley said. “I was thinking, ‘Let’s go ahead and kick it and we’ll beat these guys in overtime,’ but I gave these guys a choice. All the seniors said, ‘Coach, let’s go win this thing.'”

Even in their old-fashioned, ground-and-pound wishbone offense, the Falcons have a lot of weapons offensively that a defense has to account for on any given play. A little misdirection and Clinton-Massie’s Carson Vanhoose went around right end to give the Falcons the victory.

“The play we went for two on — they’ve been running it since third grade,” McSurley said. “It was a thing of beauty — it was like Darrell Royal’s spirit came out of the grave and pulled Carson across the goal line.”

Ursuline had 36 seconds left to score, but four incomplete passes later, the Irish turned the ball over on downs and the game was over.

“This is just going to make us stronger,” Ursuline senior receiver Dean Boyd said. “I thought we deserved this more than anyone else in Ohio. We’ve worked so hard towards this and to come up short — it’s heartbreaking. Right now I just feel kind of numb. It’s not really sinking in yet.”

The Falcons knew in order to keep Ursuline’s quick-strike offense off the field, they would have to play keepaway and control the ball for long drives that chewed up clock.

In the beginning, that’s what it did. Clinton-Massie took the ball first after Ursuline deferred to the second half, and the Falcons then grounded and pounded their way to a touchdown on a 17-play drive that ate up 9:13 of the first quarter.

But it didn’t matter.

Ursuline scored three touchdowns in the second quarter, two of which came on runs by senior running back DeMarcus McElroy and the third on a 39-yard pass from senior quarterback Brady Shannon to senior receiver Jakylan Irving.

None of Ursuline’s four touchdown drives took longer than 2:51. McElroy led all rushers with 157 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, while Shannon was 15-of-28 for 185 yards and two scores. Boyd caught Shannon’s other touchdown pass.

After its first touchdown, Ursuline recovered a high pooch kick on the ensuing kickoff. The extra possession gave the Irish the extra possession it needed to take the lead.

“We knew coming in that we were going to use that at some point in time,” Reardon said. “Their offense has the ability to grind out clock and we knew at some point in time we were going to try to steal a possession.”

Ten plays later, Ursuline had a 14-7 lead, and then the defense went to work. The Irish forced punts on each of Clinton-Massie’s next three possessions en route to its 21-7 halftime lead.

The second half was a different story.

After the Falcons amassed just 123 total yards in the first half, they racked up 223 in the second half — all of those coming on the ground.

“They have the ability to wear you down and they’re patient — they’re very good at what they do,” Reardon said. “Aside from the opening drive, I thought our guys played really well defensively in the first half. But they have a lot of answers for what you do defensively. We were giving some different looks up front and they’ve run this offense for a long time. They know how to adjust to everything. Ultimately they did a good job making adjustments and made more plays than we did in the second half.”

After struggling to move the ball in the first half, Clinton-Massie’s offensive line began opening up all kinds of holes for its runners to go through in the second half. Several long run plays led to scores that kept the Falcons in the game till it finally pulled ahead in the end, as Zantene, Vanhoose and fellow running back Colton Trampler started breaking tackles and bouncing off Ursuline defenders.

“Our guys were coming off the ball with attitude and effort, but they were able to get the ball on the perimeter,” Reardon said. “The thing is, you have to commit so many resources to stop the inside run game that it makes you vulnerable and you have to be almost perfect for those perimeter plays.”

Game notes

• Ursuline rolled through the Eastern Buckeye Conference in the postseason with playoff wins over Canton South (48-20), Salem (54-35) and West Branch (64-35).

• Clinton-Massie completed 1-of-3 passes for 1 yard, but ran for 345 yards on 52 carries, an average of 6.6 yards per attempt.

The Falcons threw 49 passes all season –in 15 games. They ran 668 times (44.5 times per game).

• Falcons fullback Colton Trampler was a difference maker, finishing with 117 tough yards on 19 carries Friday. Carson Vanhoose added 102 yards on 15 carries and Kody Zantene had 91 yards on seven carries.

• Clinton-Massie featured three 1,000-yard rushers this season with Vanhoose totaling 1,945 yards, Trampler getting 1,202 yards and Carter Frank finishing with 1,007 yards.

• McSurley is in his 36th season as head coach.

“I’ve been a part of some great teams, and this is one of the absolute best football teams I’ve been part of,” he said. “We knew this senior class was special all the way down to the third grade.”

• In the first 22 seasons of Clinton-Massie football, the Falcons had 62 wins in 219 games.

That was before McSurley arrived. The Falcons went 30-31 in his first six seasons as head coach and have gone 220-32 since.

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