CANTON — On the trophy stand, the man with the microphone told coach Jerry Bell and his Whitmer Panthers to keep climbing the ladder.
But it’s such a long climb.
And when it ends short of the top rung, it hurts.
There was no happiness as Whitmer accepted the runner-up trophy after Saturday night’s Division I state championship football game. And moments later, when all the players took a knee to pose for a team picture, there wasn’t a smile in the group.
Lots of tears, but not a single smile.
It was such a long journey with such great promise. There was an undefeated regular season, rarely a close call along the way, and a Three Rivers Athletic Conference championship. Fourteen straight wins into the state title game. Big offensive numbers and big scores.
The Panthers were ill-prepared for this crash-landing at the end.
Moeller won 20-12, holding Whitmer to its lowest point total of the season.
“I can’t talk about it,” said quarterback Nick Holley immediately after the game, who tried valiantly to lead a second-half comeback. His head was down, his eyes wet, as Moeller players celebrated just a few yards away.
The Cincinnati team is now an eight-time state champion, but hadn’t cracked open the trophy case to insert any new hardware since 1985.
Whitmer was hoping to put a state football championship trophy in the case for the first time since … well, forever.
“I feel like we came up short,” Nick Holley said later. “That was our goal coming into the season, a state championship. It was a good ride, but not good enough.”
The Panthers brought a throng with them to Fawcett Stadium Saturday night.
The press box side of the big, old joint, Whitmer’s side, was filled nearly to the brim.
They were proud and, boy, they were loud.
By halftime, they were subdued and, frankly, a bit confused. Despite dodging a bullet when a Moeller touchdown was nullified by penalty late in the second quarter, the Panthers and their fans were in unfamiliar territory.
After averaging 44 points a game, and after scoring 49 against Massillon Washington and 62 against Mentor in its two previous playoff games, after rushing for 276 yards per game, Whitmer’s offense had six points, 16 yards rushing, and two turnovers that Moeller turned into touchdowns.
The Panthers trailed 17-6.
Bell had said during the week leading up to the game that he was concerned about his team’s ability to move the ball and “whether our front seven will be able to get after [Moeller’s] big guys.”
His concerns seemed justified.
But the Panthers’ coaches made some nice blocking adjustments at the half, and Holley had three 12-yard runs on Whitmer’s first possession of the second half.
That drive stalled on a fourth-down incompletion at the Moeller 15, but the Panthers had flipped the field, and Marcus Elliott soon picked up a Crusaders’ fumble and rumbled into the end zone.
The Whitmer touchdown was not allowed due to an inadvertent whistle, but Nick Holley got the offending official and his team off the hook by rolling right and throwing back across the field to his wide-open brother, Nate, for a 20-yard score that pulled Whitmer within 17-12.
It appeared the momentum had shifted and, sure enough, the Panthers would get the ball back after another Moeller fumble — Tylor Schneider had the hit on a Crusader receiver, and Devin Thomas recovered — and again later after forcing a punt.
But the Panthers never really found the offensive magic and couldn’t take advantage of those chances.
And, so, the magic ride ended so close and painfully short of the goal.
There would be no perfection for the Panthers. There would be no daily double for Toledo and the TRAC after Central Catholic’s Division II title on Friday night in Massillon.
And there would be no fairy tale finish for a veteran assistant in his rookie year as a head coach.
The Panthers lost in the state semifinals each of the last two seasons. This time it was the championship game. The boys’ basketball team has been to the state Final Four twice in the last five seasons.
Each bid ended a step or two short of the top. It hurts, for sure.
All the Panthers can do is keep climbing the ladder.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.