Tigers Brave the Weather, Defeat Lake to Win Regional Title
In a parody of the 1942 film Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart, Woody Allen released a movie in 1972 called, “Play It Again, Sam.” The Massillon football team must have spent Thursday evening watching the big screen, because they copied that movie script to the letter. “Play It Again, Sam.” And that they did. Using a low-risk “ground-and-pound” offense and a stifling defense, they completely dismantled Uniontown Lake 24-6 to capture their 15th all-time OHSAA regional championship. Next up is Akron Hoban in a state semifinal match. The game will be held on Friday at The University of Akron’s Infocision Stadium. Hoban defeated Hudson 41-7 to advance in Region 5.
The win came in spite of playing on a bitter cold night, with 15-degree wind chill and large portions of snow on the field making the footing a little dicey. It was also particularly difficult for any offense going against the wind. Plus, the quarterbacks just couldn’t grip the ball well and had trouble adjusting to the wind.
Lake came into the game with a lone loss, coming to Canton McKinley in Week 7. The rest of the Federal League fell victum. To their advantage was a powerful ground game and a physical defense that many expected would permit them to go toe-to-toe with Massillon. But their offense was bottled up nearly the entire night and only scored after the Tigers inserted their second unit. Meanwhile, their defense did play hard, better than most previous Massillon opponents, statistics-wise. But they just couldn’t get off the field when it mattered. So, Lake bows out at 12-2, having concluded one of their best seasons in many years.
The Tiger offense did what it had done over the past many weeks. They ran Willtrell Hartson on first down. Then they ran him on second down. Finally, faced with a third and short, they brought in 220 lb. Dorian Pringle for the 2-back set and ran either back for the first down. Once in awhile, they sprinkled in a tag screen for added effect. It’s a throwback to the 1970s and it can be a bit boring for the fans, but it absolutely works. Sixty-three times they ran the ball, exceeded this year only by the 64 rushes versus Austintown Fitch. With just 17 passes thrown, the run-pass ratio was 79%, much greater than a traditional spread offense ratio of 60%. Of course, the effect is to wear down the opponent, which this year Lake had only seen up to 45 rushes against them by any other opponent.
Hartson finished the night with 40 carries, his highest total of the year, equaling that of the Fitch game. He also had 175 yards, his third highest of the year, to go along with one touchdown. With those 175 yards, he has now accumulated 1,976 total yards, matching that of Travis McGuire, who set this mark in 1991. Coincidentally, McGuire is Hartson’s running backs coach. For sure, McGuire is proud of this achievement.
Pringle rushed 13 times for 46 yards and a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass. Quarterback Jalen Slaughter was limited mostly to tag screens and completed 11 of 17 for 52 yards. Enough to keep the defense honest. On the receiving end was Kyler Wiggins, who caught nine passes for 46 yards.
On defense, the Tigers plainly and simply overmatched the Blue Streaks. Lake failed to gain a single net yard on the ground. Whatever minimal yardage was gained, was quickly negated by quarterback sacks. They tried every kind of running play in their arsenal and nothing seemed to work. Some success was achieved early off of tag screens because the corners were playing back. But after they were brought up, those passes weren’t there. In the second quarter the Blue Streaks managed to drive to the Massillon 13 yards line, and faced a comfortable second and five situation. But the Tigers quickly snuffed that with three consecutive quarterback sacks. It was the last time Lake would threaten until after the second unit was inserted.
Massillon received the opening kickoff, which Zach Liebler returned to the Tiger 48, setting his team up in great field position. From that point, the offense went to work using the play-calling philosophy described above. It worked well until they were near the goal line when Lake stopped the drive at the one yard line. So Lake took over. But the snap was fumbled in the end zone and the miscue resulted in a safety.
Massillon’s second drove went much better, when they drove 49 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown, with Hartson going in from the four on the first play of the second quarter. And that was all of the scoring for the first half. The other three Tiger possessions ended in a punt and two fumbles, the second occurring at the Lake five yard line.
In the first possession of the third quarter, the Tigers drove 49 yards in 10 plays and scored when Pringle bulled in from the two. A third TD was added in the fourth on a 5-yard pass to Pringle, essentially putting the game out of reach for the Blue Streaks. After an exchange of punts, the backups were inserted. Up to that point Lake had gained negative 18 yards on the ground and 39 yards in the air, all while failing to score.
Starting field position also played a role in the outcome, with Massillon starting on average at their own 43 and Lake at their own 27.
Pringle once again led the team in tackle points, this time with 4.5. Ryan Page and Cody Fair each had 4.0. Maverick Clark recovered a fumble.
Writer’s note: If there was ever a case to be made for Stark County Player of the Year, it would be for Pringle. On defense he plays like Chris Spielman and leads the team in both tackles (63.5) and tackles-for-loss (18.0). The TFL number ties the all-time season record set by Caiden Woullard. He also has 5.5 sacks. And don’t forget his play at the end of the St. Edward game, where he caused and recovered a fumble that led to Massillon’s victory. Then there is his offensive play: 51 carries for 291 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per attempt. Finally, he was instrumental in helping his team to a regional title. The coaches of Stark County really missed on this one.
‘Outmatched and undermanned’: Massillon football too much for Lake in OHSAA regional final
By Josh Weir, The Repository
PARMA — A night such as Friday — with 20 mile-per-hour winds making 27 degrees feel like 14 — meant dealing with the elements as much as the opponent.
Massillon’s high school football team handled both like a champion.
The Tigers defense stonewalled Lake on a stone-cold night and got enough support from its offense to win the Division II, Region 7 final 24-6 at Parma’s Byers Field.
“At this point, it’s just win,” Massillon head coach Nate Moore said about his team’s mindset in dealing with the circumstances of Friday. “We won the ballgame and we live to fight another day.”
The Tigers’ fifth regional championship in the last six years sets up another meeting with old friend Hoban, which beat Hudson 41-7 in the Region 5 final.
Massillon (12-1) will face Hoban (13-1) the day after Thanksgiving at the University of Akron in a 7 p.m. state semifinal.
Massillon outrushed Lake 241-2, with senior Willtrell Hartson running for 175 yards and a touchdown on a workman-like 40 carries. Junior Dorian Pringle produced an outstanding overall game, running for a 2-yard touchdown, catching a 5-yard TD pass from Jalen Slaughter and keying the defensive effort at linebacker.
“We ain’t satisfied,” Hartson said. “We’ve got two more weeks to go.”
Hartson’s 175 yards tie him with Travis McGuire for most single-season rushing yards in Massillon history at 1,976. McGuire, the running backs coach at Massillon today, set the mark in 1991.
Lake’s defense came to play, holding the Tigers to 3.8 yards a carry in a game that turned into a between-the-tackles battle royale thanks to the howling wind.
“It was tough sledding,” Moore said. “You’ve got to give credit to Lake. They were physical and well-coached. We had to grind it out. There wasn’t a whole lot of explosive plays. But we were able to grind out first downs and pick up several fourth downs. Possessing the ball, especially going into the wind, was key.”
Possess the ball they did. Lake ran one play in the first quarter, and it resulted in points for the Tigers.
The Blue Streaks had just stopped Hartson at the 1 on fourth-and-goal (the 16th play of Massillon’s opening drive). Lake fumbled the ensuing quarterback-center exchange in the end zone. Running back Matt Sollberger picked up the loose ball but was dropped for a safety by Massillon linebacker Maverick Clark.
The Tigers then marched 49 yards in 10 plays, ending with Hartson’s 3-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter.
“It was a great start to the game,” Moore said. “We started into the wind, which was tough. But our backs ran hard and our offensive line played really well and we were able to pick up first downs on the ground and possess the ball.”
At that point, Massillon had run 26 plays to Lake’s one and led 9-0.
Lake’s next play was a high snap that led to a 4-yard loss, followed by a snap completely over the head of quarterback Cale Jarvis for an 11-yard loss.
“We lost our center from last week, so we had another guy playing center and that showed on that first drive,” Lake head coach Dan DeGeorge said. “We were just outmatched and undermanned tonight. Massillon is a very good football team.”
In a season partially defined by overcoming injuries, they finally seemed too much for Lake (12-2). At least they were in facing a team the caliber of Massillon.
Lake needed to be at its best to have a shot at knocking off the Tigers in the first ever matchup between the two Stark County programs.
Instead, the Blue Streaks had to battle like wounded animals.
Sollberger reaggravated the ankle injury that knocked him out of last week’s regional semifinal on Friday’s first play, and this was not an ideal night to be without a 1,200-yard running back.
Lake also was without All-Federal League punter Celton Dutton because of a fractured arm, forcing junior Nate Baker to do the punting on top of filling in at running back some, playing wide receiver and starting in the defensive secondary.
The Blue Streaks, who lost three starting defensive linemen to season-ending injuries during the course of the year, watched two more (Riley Fuimaono and Nate Sponseller) be helped off in Friday’s second half.
Squinting as the brutal wind beat against his face, DeGeorge said, “It was a tough night to play. This is one of the worst nights I’ve coached in. But my kids kept fighting.”
When Lake found any kind of spark offensively, Massillon’s defense was there to snuff it out.
The Blue Streaks drove to Massillon’s 13 late in the second quarter. Massillon’s Malachi Card, Michael Wright Jr. and Brandon Carman answered with three straight sacks of Jarvis to force a turnover on downs.
Lake had a fourth-and-1 in Massillon territory on the first play of the fourth quarter, but the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Pringle drilled 6-3, 215-pound Will Butler and jarred the ball loose for another stop.
Lake finished with 64 yards of offense on 36 plays.
“Our coordinators Craig McConnell and Spencer Leno did a phenomenal job prepping for these guys and our kids just go out and play hard and run to the football and defeat blocks,” Moore said. “That’s really what defense is all about. Do your job.”
Kyler Wiggins caught nine passes for 46 yards to give some balance to Massillon, which lost two fumbles and was penalized six times for 65 yards.
Sollberger reentered the game late and scored on an 18-yard run to avoid the shutout for Lake. Butler, the Federal League Player of the Year, had 11 yards on 12 carries. Jarvis was 6-of-12 passing for 62 yards, with Baker catching four of the passes for 43 yards.
Sophomore Charlie Christopher, junior Evan Brady and the senior Butler led a Lake defense that went hit-for-hit with Massillon.
“They’re just tough as nails,” DeGeorge said of his defense. “Half of them are banged up and battling injuries.”
DeGeorge spent a long time on the field afterwards saying good-bye to players who helped Lake win a piece of its first league title since 1998. Before this postseason, the Blue Streaks had won one playoff game since their 2010 state semifinal team.
“I’m just so happy for the kids, that they got to experience this,” DeGeorge said. “It was great for our community. It put us back on the map a little bit, where we need to be more consistently, and that falls on me. This is something we want to enjoy, but we need to be back here more often.”
Massillon now has won 20 straight games against Stark County teams.
It was a Federal League team (Green) that ended the Tigers’ season in a regional final last year.
They seemed pleased with their regional championship trophy Friday, but there was no big celebration.
Massillon has its sights on a different trophy.
“We have bigger goals than this,” Moore said. “We’re happy to be here. It’s an honor to be here. But at the same time, we’re happy to be moving forward because it puts us in position to reach our ultimate goal.”