MASSILLON It was almost like a sign.
Willtrell Hartson took the handoff, hit the hole and raced untouched into the end zone for the 23-yard Massillon touchdown with just over two minutes left in the third quarter. No sooner had he crossed the goal line than lightning flashed above Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.
To Hoover’s defense, Hartson must have felt like a flash of lightning himself. The sophomore running back found the end zone four times Friday night, helping the Tigers take down the Vikings 48-23 in a Division II, Region 7 quarterfinal.
The lightning after Hartson’s scoring run with 2:18 remaining in the third quarter, sent the game into a delay at 8:54 p.m. with Massillon up by what would be the final margin. The teams returned to the field at 10:32 p.m., with the Tigers failing on a 2-point conversion pass.
“He ran well, ran hard,” said Massillon coach Nate Moore, who won his 99th career game, including 57th with the Tigers. “He played with great vision. Ran with speed, ran with power. A really good day.”
Massillon, which has won seven in a row to improve to 7-1, will likely play host to Westerville South next week in a regional semifinal. South led Olentangy Berlin 42-10 in the third quarter on Friday when that game was suspended due to storms.
The storm was about the only thing to slow down Hartson on the night. He finished with 196 yards on 13 carries, gashing Hoover for six runs of at least 13 yards.
It’s the second time in three games since replacing the injured Raekwon Venson as the starting running back that Hartson has rushed for at least 180 yards. Turns out, he may really like running against Stark County defenses.
Hartson’s other 100-plus-yard rushing game came in Massillon’s Week 6 win over rival McKinley. He gained 188 yards and scored two TDs in the 35-7 win.
That game against the Bulldogs was also the Tigers’ best rushing performance as a team coming into Friday’s contest, with 286 yards on the ground and five touchdowns. By the time Massillon finished off the Vikings, they had gained a season-high 335 yards on 36 attempts.
“This game was won in the trenches,” Hoover coach Brian Baum said. “Their offensive line did a great job. Their backs found the open hole. I knew it was going to come down to the trenches. I was worried about the size of their O-line, and they were able to move some people and did a good job.”
It wasn’t just Hartson. Cam Beasley added 54 yards on 11 carries, while receiver Martavien Johnson had 47 yards and one score on just three carries.
For all of the running, though, Massillon actually threw it efficiently as well. Zach Catrone was 9-of-10 for 142 yards and a touchdown, with Jayden Ballard catching six passes for a season-high 96 yards.
“I thought Zach did a really nice job operating our offense,” Moore said. “Spreading the ball around. Very efficient.”
Ballard had the spectacular play of the night on his 42-yard TD catch that put Massillon in front 35-10 with just under two minutes left in the first half. He was hit by a Hoover defender as the ball hit his hands, knocking it free, but he secured it as he hit the ground for the score.
Despite the Tigers’ steady offensive success, the 5-3 Vikings were able to stay within striking distance through the early portion of the third quarter. A big reason for that was the play of senior quarterback Connor Ashby.
It was Ashby’s ability to keep plays alive that helped him connect twice with Brock Henne, on catches of 22 and 29 yards, on Hoover’s first scoring drive. That drive, which pulled the Vikings within 14-7 with 3:57 left in the first quarter, was capped by a Drew Robinson 3-yard touchdown run.
“I didn’t think they were going to be able to beat us doing that,” Moore said, referring to Ashby’s ability to prolong plays. “The couple they completed on that drive really were, especially that second one, desperation passes. Kudos to them for making the throw and the kids catching it. It was a little different than escaping the pocket and having a really nice throw to an open receiver.”
Ashby connected on a 46-yard pass to Robinson, then followed that up with a 17-yard run of his own, as the Vikings pulled within 28-10 with 1:55 left in the first half on Yanni Velas’ 26-yard field goal. He connected again with Robinson, this time on an 11-yard TD pass, to make it 35-16 Massillon just 37 seconds into the second half.
Hoover recovered an onside kick after that score at the Tiger 49. However, that drive, hurt by an offensive pass interference call, ended on a punt from the Viking 44.
The Viking senior was 9-of-18 passing for 209 yards with a touchdown. However, he netted just 17 rushing yards on 16 carries thanks to the pursuit of the Tiger defense which dropped him for a total of 33 yards lost.
“I thought our guys did a pretty good job overall,” Moore said.
Michael Billman had a pair of sacks on Ashby as part of a 3.5 tackle-for-loss night. Mike Miller added one sack, while Xavier Andrews had 1.5 tackles for loss.
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