Kickoff return keys Massillon’s return to the state semifinals
Nov 16, 2018 10:39 PM
Chris Easterling

NORTH CANTON Massillon was looking for something to help it get a little separation.

Almost two full quarters into Friday night’s Division II Region 7 championship game against Wadsworth, the Tigers were locked in a tie game. Every time they would seem to grab a bit of momentum, the Grizzlies had the answer.

That is, until the final three-plus minutes of the first half. That’s when Massillon grabbed the separation it needed to send it to its second consecutive regional championship with 41-19 victory in front of a capacity crowd at North Canton Memorial Stadium.

“I knew it was a big key in the game,” said senior Kyshad Mack, whose 82-yard kickoff return with 3:12 remaining in the first half gave the Tigers the lead for good at 17-10. “I went out and made a play for my brothers.”

Mack’s kickoff return was one of two Tiger touchdowns in the final 3:12 of the half. The other was a 12-yard Aidan Longwell-to-Jamir Thomas’ scoring pass with 17 seconds remaining, giving Massillon a 24-10 halftime lead.

The Grizzlies, who bow out at 12-1, would get no closer than 12 the remainder of the game. The Tigers, meanwhile, would use Mack’s return to key a 31-9 game-ending burst.

“The kickoff return was huge,” said Massillon coach Nate Moore, whose team now has the best start in school history at 13-0. “Then, to drive down the field and get a score there to push it to two scores there was big.”

Massillon’s state-semifinal matchup won’t be official until the Ohio High School Athletic Association announces it on Sunday afternoon. However, based upon the results of Friday’s Division II regional finals, it sets up the extreme likelihood of two rematches from a year ago in the final four, with the Tigers facing Winton Woods and three-time state champion Hoban meeting Avon.

Moore, whose team tied the 2005 state runner-up team for most wins in school history, wasn’t prepared to focus too much on the next opponent.

“I have a feeling how it’s going to go,” said Moore, whose team lost to the Warriors in last year’s state semifinals. “I think we’re going to have to wait and see what the OHSAA decides.”

With just under four minutes left in the first half on Friday, Massillon couldn’t afford to look ahead to the state semifinals. At that point in time, it was just trying to shake a very good Wadsworth team.

Massillon took leads of 7-0 and 10-7 in the first half thanks to a 53-yard Longwell-to-Jayden Ballard touchdown pass and a 32-yard Alex Bauer field goal. Wadsworth, though, would get a Trey Shaffer-to-Tyler Montgomery 20-yard pass and a 25-yard Blake Turano field goal to twice square the game.

Wadsworth finished the game with 394 total yards, the second-highest total of the season against Massillon. That included 244 rushing yards, 109 of those by Dom Loparo.

Brock Snowball added 91 yards on the ground for the Grizzlies.

Wadsworth, though, couldn’t get the game tied for a third time. After Mack’s return, the Tigers tried a pooch kick which they recovered, but were called for illegal touching to give Wadsworth the ball at the Massillon 46.

Four plays later, the Grizzlies faced a fourth-and-6 from the Tiger 9 and attempted a field goal. The kick fell short, giving Massillon the football back at its 20.

Ten plays later, the Tigers – who had 403 total yards – had the two-score lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Compounding the issue for Wadsworth was the fact its first second-half possession was stopped on downs at the Massillon 1.

“That was the plan,” Wadsworth coach Justin Todd said of making it a one-score game out of the half. “That’s what we needed to do. We needed to come out in the second half and we had to score. Unfortunately, we didn’t punch it in.”

The Grizzlies would get a safety on the subsequent play after the goal-line stand to pull within 24-12. However, their next drive was snuffed out by a Dean Clark interception at the Massillon 22.

The Tigers would turn their next two possessions into points, essentially removing all doubt. They would get a 33-yard Bauer field goal for a 27-12 lead, followed by a 24-yard Longwell-to-Clark pass for a 34-12 edge.

Longwell, who missed the last three quarters of the regional-semifinal win over Whitehall-Yearling with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, showed no ill effects. The junior was 17-of-25 for a career-high 306 yards with four touchdowns.

“He played pretty well,” Moore said of Longwell. “He made a lot of good decisions out there and threw a lot of good balls. I’m proud of him.

GAME STATS

Reach Chris at 330-775-1128 or chris.easterling@indeonline.com.

On Twitter: @ceasterlingINDE