Massillon captured its fourth consecutive regional title with a convincing 43-13 victory over top-seeded and previously-undefeated Massillon Perry. With the win the Tigers advance to the state semifinals where they will face Cincinnati LaSalle, the team that defeated Massillon last year 34-17 in the Division 2 state finals.
“What a tale of two halves,” said Massillon head coach Nate Moore in opening the weekly Booster Club meeting. “Things couldn’t have started any worse.” On the first play from scrimmage the Tigers lost 23 yards when the center snapped the ball over the quarterback’s head and it was recovered at the six yard line. That series ended quickly in a punt. Perry then drove the ball to the Massillon 23, but missed a 40-yard field goal attempt. On Massillon’s second try, they picked up just a single first down before punting again. Perry then used their double-win offense to engineer a 15-play, 81-yard drive for the game’s first score.
The Tigers were suddenly down 6-0 and had run just seven plays. But the game was suddenly about to turn. On the first play following the kickoff, quarterback Zach Catrone dropped back to pass and hit Jayden Ballard in stride on a 72-yard touchdown pass. Alex Bauer’s extra point made it 7-6 and the rout was on. Perry would not score again until the fourth quarter, when Massillon had a commanding 35-6 lead. By the end of the game the Tigers had scored 43 points and run just 24 plays during the scoring span.
“The quarterback scrambling hurt us,” said Moore. “Key mistakes in key moments. But we came out in the second half and scored touchdowns and put pressure on Perry. I’m proud of the guys. They didn’t flinch.” But as Moore noted later, every team at this stage of the playoffs is good.
A couple of Tiger players had incredible nights. Catrone completed all ten of his pass attempts, a feat that had never before been accomplished by a Massillon quarterback when at least ten passes had been thrown. Couple that with Catrone passing for 324 yards and converting three touchdowns without throwing an interception and his pass efficiency rating for the night was a whopping 396. That surpassed the previous record of 322 set by Aidan Longwell in 2017. “He managed the game really well for us,” beamed Moore. “He made great decisions.”
Seven of Catrone’s passes went to OSU-bound Ballard, who caught three for touchdowns of 72, 15 and 33 yards. Martavien Johnson caught two passes for 28 yards and West Virginia recruit Andrew-Wilson Lamp hauled in a 56-yard pass, but was unfortunately tackled at one, denying him the score.
Willtrell Hartson once again led the ground attack, rushing 18 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns. “Hartson ran hard,” said the coach. “He’s really special. Perry’s defensive line was tough.”
Also having a big night was linebacker Nick Liebler, who recorded 11 solo tackles and 12 assists, totaling 17.0 tackle points. He now takes over 2nd place all-time behind Chuck Vliet, who had 42 combined tackles against Warren Harding in 1950. “It was a great performance by Nick,” said Moore.
Isaiah Clark also had a big night with 8 tackles and 6 assists, as the safeties for the Tigers by design are actively involved in run defense. Caiden Woullard added two more tackles-for-loss and now has a career total of 29.5. as he closes in on the all-time record of 30.0.
A couple of other highlights came from special teams. The first was when one of the Tiger players was assessed a personal foul following a TD and Massillon was forced to kick off from its own 25. But Magnus Haines answered the bell and launched a beauty that landed at the Perry seven and scooted into the end zone for a touchback. No harm done there. The second was following a quick punt by Perry that forced safety Austin Brawley to sprint down field to cover the ball. He retrieved it off a bounce at the 20, circled a pair of would-be tacklers, cut back across the field and was then escorted by a host of teammates who paved the road down the sidelines for an 80-yard score. That TD essentially put the game away. The 80-yard return is the 10th longest in Massillon history.
The guest co-captains were Catrone and Xavier Andrews. “Offensively, we ran a very efficient game, both running and passing,” said Catrone.” “It was a hard fought game,” added Andrews. “We owned the line of scrimmage. Now we need to get revenge on LaSalle.”
“We have a heck of a challenge this week,” cautioned Moore. LaSalle (8-2), the 2019 Division 2 state champions, captured Region 8 with a 35-10 win over Cincinnati Winton Woods, which finished the season with a 9-1 record. Other big wins this year were 53-52 in overtime against Cincinnati Elder (5-4) and 55-30 over Cincinnati Anderson (7-3). A pair of losses came against Cincinnati St. Xavier (8-2) by the score of 24-10 and Indianapolis Cathedral (8-1) by the score of 37-28. They return five starters on offense and five on defense. Like Massillon, they failed to achieve a first place vote in the bracket seedings on account of a loss or two against a superior schedule as compared to the weaker teams in their respective regions.
Offensively, the Lancers line up in many different formations. But they have one primary focus: moving the ball on the ground with quarterback Zach Branam. The senior is 5′-10″, 200 lbs. and is the leading rusher on the team with 114 yards per game and 14 overall touchdowns. He has also thrown for 155 yards per game with 10 touchdowns. “He is a fantastic football player,” said Moore. “The best we’ve seen. An OK thrower, but a tremendous runner. He runs with power and has good vision.” In last year’s game against Massillon, Branam rushed 22 times for 154 yards.
Branam will operate behind a big line that averages 6′-2″, 287 lbs. Three of the five are returning starters. The best lineman is junior Paul Haywood (6′-3″, 325). He’s huge and is a powerful player. The running back for this game was expected to be the speedy returning starter Gi’Bran Payne, who rushed in last year’s title game for 141 yards. But he is apparently out with a stress fracture in his ankle. Taking his place is senior Jack Rutz (6′-0″, 200). Moore says he is a good running back, but not at the level of Payne.
The No. 1 pass target is senior fullback Cole Schneider (5′-11″, 180). This year he has caught 29 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns. They will also utilize three or four wide receivers, but they are mostly in to block. But they block really well according to Moore. None has any remarkable pass receiving stats.
On defense, look for 3-3 and 3-4 alignments with multiple coverages by the defensive backs. The strength of the unit is the defensive backfield, where three players have offers from Alabama, Miami and Cincinnati. The linebacking corps is also good, led by junior JJ Ruffin (6′-3″, 227) and senior Jaylen Johnson (6′-3″, 210). Both play on the edges and are really, really good. Johnson is OSU-bound.
In 2018 Massillon revenged a state semifinal loss to Cincinnati Winton Woods and in 2019 they revenged a state finals loss to Akron Hoban. Can they repeat that same effort this year against LaSalle? We will find out Friday in Marysville. Game time is 7:00. Tune to Spectrum through this website to watch all the action.
Announcement: The post-season banquet has been canceled. In its place, player awards will be announced via a zoom meeting, scheduled for December 16. Watch this website for details.