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Tigers’ incredible season falls just one short of title

By JOE SHAHEEN

Right now, it hurts.

The pain of the Massillon Tigers 24‑17 state championship game defeat at the hands of No. 1‑ranked Cincinnati St. Xavier in front of 20,227 at Fawcett Stadium on Saturday will linger for days … maybe weeks.

But when the emotions of being so close to the big prize die down and thoughtful reason takes over, everyone will reflect on how these Tigers restored the pride, tradition and excellence to this storied football program.

“It’s tough to think about it now after a tough loss,” first‑year Tiger coach Tom Stacy said. “We’ve got a great group of kids. We have a bunch of seniors we are really going to miss. It’s a special group. We’re going to have a hard time replacing those guys.”

Massillon pushed Ohio’s top rated football team to the brink, rallying from a 24‑3 chasm to pull to within seven points. After battling back to 24‑17 on a Bobby Huth to Trey Miller touchdown pass and Andrew Dailey’s 75‑yard strip and return, the Tigers had three possessions in the final six minutes of play. One ended on an interception, the second was a three‑and‑out series and the third, which began with 1:22 remaining, was doomed by a couple of quarterback sacks by the unrelenting St. Xavier defense.

“The fact we were playing some younger guys on our offensive line in the playoffs caught up with us,” Stacy said. “We tried to buy some time with some of those younger guys and bring them around. We took Antonio James and played him just on defense. I think taking him away from our offense caught up with us a little bit tonight.”

So did the Tigers’ kickoff and punt coverage. St. Xavier returned the game’s opening kickoff to midfield, leading to a 37‑yard field goal and a quick 3‑0 lead, But the killer was a 71‑yard punt return for a touchdown by Bomber senior Brad Brookbank as time expired in the first half.

Tigers fight back, down 21

“That was big,” Stacy said. “That’s something we haven’t done all year in the kicking game. We’ve done a great job of covering kicks so it was a little bit disappointing, but give their kid credit. Brookbank made a great play.”

“(St. Xavier is) the best football team we’ve played. I don’t think they’re the most talented team we’ve played but I think they’re the overall best team as far as coaching and play.”

St. Xavier won because its defense shut down the Massillon ground game, limiting the Tigers to 46 net yards rushing, and forced two key turnovers, a third‑quarter fumble inside the Bomber 30‑yard line and a fourth‑quarter interception after the Massillon defense had forced the St. X to punt with 6:17 to play.

St. Xavier, the fourth straight Cincinnati team to garner the big‑school state title, generated 303 yards of offense. Sophomore tailback Darius Ashley had 153 yards rushing, including a 50‑yard touchdown run at 5:48 of the third quarter that made it a 24‑3 game, and senior quarterback Brad Scherer rushed for 97 yards in just 15 totes to keep the Massillon defense off balance.

“We didn’t tackle as well as we have,” Stacy said. “We’ve tackled better in previous games.

“(Ashley) runs very hard. He’s very quick. They do a good job of blocking up front. For whatever reason we didn’t tackle as well as we have in recent weeks.”

Massillon and St. Xavier exchanged punts after the Bombers took their early 3‑0 lead, with the Tigers taking over at their 24.

Massillon’s first big play of the evening was a 28‑yard Huth to Ricardo Wells aerial to the St. X 43‑yard line. The Tigers worked the ball to the 25 but the first of four Bomber sacks in the game stalled the drive.

Sophomore place kicker Steve Schott came to the rescue, drilling a season best 44‑yard field goal, to knot the game at 3‑3 on the opening snap of the second quarter.

The teams again exchanged punts with St. X getting the better of the field position at its 42‑yard line. Scherer picked up 13 yards on a quarterback draw and a reverse netted 18 more to the Tiger 27.

The Bombers dropped a pass in the end zone but were undeterred, reaching the 16‑yard line on three running plays. On first down, Scherer completed his first pass of the evening, threading the needle on a 16‑yard scoring toss to wideout Matthew McFarland in the back of the end zone. Danny Milligan added the point after for a 10‑3 St. Xavier lead at 6:56 of the second quarter.

Massillon drove from its 20 to the St. X 36 on the ensuing possession but three plays from that spot yielded zero yards and the drive died.

The Bombers would then miss a 43‑yard field goal and the Tigers, after gaining one first down, were forced to punt when St. Xavier called time out with :08 remaining in the first half.

A punt block was set up but the Tigers gave Shawn Weisend time to get the kick away. Brookbank fielded it at the St. X 29, worked his way to the left sideline and then all the way to the Massillon end zone for a 17‑3 halftime lead.

“It was not like us to give up a punt return especially in that type of a situation,” Stacy said. “But give Brad Brookbank a lot of credit. He had a great return.

“That was a big momentum swing on their part to get that. It was a big play in the game.”

Massillon took the second half kickoff and advanced from its 20 to the St. Xavier 28 on nine plays, the biggest of which was a 28‑yard Huth to Gamble pass. On that play, Huth scrambled away from intense pressure from the St. X defensive front and lofted the ball down the right sideline toward the junior tailback. Gamble soared above the Bomber coverage and snatched the ball in spectacular fashion.

Two plays later, a Tiger fumble was recovered by St. Xavier’s Joe Ries, and the Massillon scoring threat went for naught.

After an exchange of punts, Ashley broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage on a first‑down running play, and dashed 50 yards to pay dirt to give St. Xavier a 24‑3 lead at 5:48 of the third quarter.

Lanale Robinson’s 36‑yard kickoff return gave Massillon solid field position at the 41 on the Tigers next possession. Huth then connected with Trey Miler for eight yards and a first down to the St. X 46.

Two snaps later, Huth once again deftly avoiding the pass rush ‑ gunned the ball to the end zone, where Miller out‑jumped two Bombers for the ball and a 32‑yard touchdown.

Schott’s point after was good and the St. Xavier lead was down to 24‑10 at 3:49 of the third quarter.

The Bombers mounted a drive after the Tiger kickoff, converting two third-and‑longs and marching to the Massillon 19.

Just as it appeared St. Xavier was going to put the game away for good, Andrew Dailey donned his Superman outfit and made a play. Ashley tried to skirt his left end on a running play but Dailey pulled the ball away near the sideline and headed in the opposite direction. He didn’t stop until he reached the end zone and suddenly Massillon was back in business, trailing by seven points with most of the fourth quarter to be played.

“We were stuck in a hole there for a little bit, ” Dailey said. “We had to start going after the ball defensively. So I did.”

The Tiger defense forced St. Xavier to punt three more times after Dailey’s heroics, but the Bomber defense was equal to the task each time, finally knocking Huth out of the game before coming up with an interception with less than a minute to play.

“It would have been easy for them when they went down 24‑3 to buckle,” said St. Xavier coach Steve Specht. “They didn’t. They fought back hard and they made it a game. My hat’s off to them.”

“We wanted to win our 23rd state championship’ Stacy said. “We weren’t quite able to do that. We came up a little bit short.”

GAME STATS

Antonio James