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Published: 11/21/2010

Panthers end Titans' year

Zach Steinmetz of St. John's is upended by Whitmer's Mark Meyers. Zach Steinmetz of St. John's is upended by Whitmer's Mark Meyers.
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Whitmer celebrates as it receives the Division I regional championship trophy at BGSU's Perry Stadium.
Whitmer celebrates as it receives the Division I regional championship trophy at BGSU's Perry Stadium.
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Zach Steinmetz of St. John's makes a catch against Whitmer's Mark Meyers.
Zach Steinmetz of St. John's makes a catch against Whitmer's Mark Meyers.
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Whitmer's Nick Longenbarger runs after making a catch against Nate White of  St. John's. Whitmer's Nick Longenbarger runs after making a catch against Nate White of St. John's.
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BOWLING GREEN — In one of the biggest high school football games ever played between two Toledo teams, City League champion Whitmer did not exactly have a big game.

But the Panthers had a big play at the end of the first half, and a big drive near the end of the game, and those two things turned out to be just big enough to provide a 14-10 victory over CL runner-up St. John's Jesuit in the Division I, Region 2 championship game at Perry Stadium Saturday.

“The biggest thing was we just needed to hang around and find a way to win,” Panther coach Joe Palka said. “We had a play on special teams, and finally we got some offense when it mattered most. Our defense played lights out all night.”

The crowd was officially announced at 7,336, but you'd have a tough time convincing anyone there that the attendance wasn't closer to 10,000.

Fans saw Whitmer (12-1) drive 50 yards on four plays to score the game-winning points on sophomore running back Tre Sterritt's five-yard run with 3:56 remaining.

The winning drive was set up by Nick Holley's pivotal 18-yard punt return, the second of Holley's two big plays in the game. The score itself was set up by senior quarterback Alex Palicki's 33-yard run on a keeper to the Titans' 5.

“I just saw daylight and I went,” Palicki said. “I was not going to be stopped. When Tre scored, that was the best feeling of my life. It was awesome knowing we got it done.

“We just knew that we had to go on that drive. Everyone just buckled up and fought, and we made it happen.”

The Panther defense held on, bending but not breaking against a furious final drive by the Titans (11-2), who started their final possession at their 20.

St. John's got as far as the Whitmer 26 in a fourth-and-4 situation, but sophomore quarterback Brogan Roback's pass to senior tight end Zach Steinmetz was broken up by Panther defensive back Garrett Clarke near the 20.

“I watched him jump for the ball, so I jumped for it too,” Clarke said of the clinching play. “It was a great moment when I saw the ball on the ground. That was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Whitmer then ran the remaining 1:21 off the clock to seal its state semifinal berth, most likely against powerhouse Lakewood St. Edward (13-0) Saturday at 7 p.m. at a site to be determine

The Panthers needed their late TD to advance to the fourth state semifinal in school history after St. John's junior placekicker Brandon Smith booted a clutch 40-yard field goal with 10:07 left in the game.

Looking lifeless in the first half, Whitmer was dominated by the Titans offensively only to go to halftime tied 7-7.

St. John's outgained the Panthers 191-50 before the break (337-220 in the game), but could only manage one TD. That came on a 14-yard run around right end by senior back Nate White (11, carries, 48 yards) with 6:38 left in the half.

But disaster struck the Titans as they lined up to punt from their 47 with just 30.5 seconds left in the half.

Smith's punt was blocked by Whitmer senior Joe McNabb, and teammate Nick Holley picked up the ball in stride at the St. John's 25.

Holley was stopped at the 2 yard line and fumbled into the end zone, where 6-7, 215-pound sophomore Nigel Hayes – best known for his promising future in basketball – recovered the ball for a TD with just 16.8 seconds left in the half.

“That was big momentum changer for us,” McNabb said. “It really helped us going into the second half.”

Palka thought the play was more than just a momentum changer.

“That could be the biggest play in Whitmer history,” he said. “I believe we have the greatest team in Whitmer history, and this is the first time we've been to a final four since the late 1980s. That play gave us a chance to win the game.

“Not much was going right for us. They were playing great defense, and we were having a hard time moving the ball.”

Titans coach Doug Pearson agreed on the impact of McNabb's block.

“We dominated the first half and we had nothing to show for it,” Pearson said. The blocked punt before the half was a big letdown for us.

“That was too bad because we definitely could have won this ball game, no question about that.”

Whitmer's standout junior running back Jody Webb was held to 54 yards on 13 carries, far below the 210-yard, three-TD effort he managed in Whitmer's convincing 49-24 home win over St. John's back on Sept. 24.

“It's always difficult to beat a team twice in one year,” Webb said. “But we kept our heads in the game, we kept our composure, and we took it at the end.”

Roback was 18-of-32 passing for 155 yards, Palicki 7-of-15, for 75. Titan running back Kent Kern rushed 17 times for a game-high 113 yards.

Steinmetz had five catches for 58 yards, and CL player of the year Cheatham Norrils had seven receptions for 54 yards.

“They played their butts off tonight, especially on defense.” Pearson said of the Titans. “We just didn't get in the end zone when we needed to. We certainly had opportunities, but we just didn't take advantage of them.

“Whitmer is a good football team, no question. Congratulations to them. We needed to make some plays at key times, and we just didn't make them.”

Whitmer lost in its three previous state semifinals appearances (1979, 1987, 1988).

Contact Steve Junga at: sjunga@theblade.com or 419-724-6461.



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