SANDUSKY — Unbeaten Whitmer got its strongest challenge of the season Saturday night at Strobel Field, but the Panthers assumed control after halftime and took a 39-28 victory over Hudson in a Division I regional semifinal.
Senior running back Tre Sterritt paced the Panthers with 196 yards on 25 carries, including two touchdowns, and senior quarterback Nick Holley offset a three-turnover game by rushing for 142 yards on 26 attempts and completing 7 of 12 passes for 101 yards.
“Our kids believed the entire time that they could win this ballgame, and that at some point they were going to take it over,” Panthers coach Jerry Bell said. “They did that.
“Hudson is very resilient. They keep fighting and fighting. They’re never out of the ballgame. Hats off to our O-line. They took over in the second half. We were able to run the football and eat the clock.”
The third-ranked Panthers (12-0), who trailed 14-12 at halftime, imposed their will to start the third quarter, beginning with Devon Miller’s 37-yard kickoff return.
That play sparked a 59-yard touchdown drive, capped with a two-yard run by Me’Gail Frisch with 8 minutes, 32 seconds left in the third. The Whitmer defense then produced a three-and-out possession and punt from the Explorers (9-3), and the offense went back to work.
This time, the Panthers moved 69 yards on 18 plays and took 7:30 off the clock by the time Frisch scored from a yard out to give Whitmer a 26-14 lead 1:11 into the fourth quarter.
From there, the teams traded touchdowns twice during the final 9:51, and the Panthers had done enough to advance to their third straight Region 2 final.
Whitmer will face Massillon Washington (11-1), which beat rival Canton McKinley 28-19 in the other Region 2 semifinal Saturday night. The final will be played at 7 p.m. Saturday at a site to be determined.
Whitmer had some tense moments towards the end, leading just 33-28.
Nick Holley lost a fumble at the Hudson 11 with 2:47 remaining and needed the Panther defense to make a stand.
It did, and when a Mitchell Guadagni fourth-down completion to Tim Kennedy left the Explorers inches shy of a first down, Holley and his teammates could breathe a sigh of relief.
“Your heart just sinks into your stomach when that happened,” Nate Holley said of his twin brother’s fumble. “It’s a horrible feeling, but then he came back and scored another touchdown. That probably made it a little better, but he’s probably still upset with himself.”
Hudson coach Ron Wright opted to allow Whitmer to score instead of run out the clock, and Holley went 19 yards for the final margin.
In a wild first half that included six turnovers, two by Whitmer, the Panthers went to the break down 14-12.
The turnover tone was set from the beginning, as Guadagni lost a fumble on the Explorers’ first play form scrimmage, and Nick Holley was intercepted two plays later by Hudson’s John Zuccaro.
The Explorers struck first, marching 85 yards on six plays, with Guadagni hitting Kennedy on a 28-yard TD pass.
Whitmer’s next drive stalled, but the Panthers got the ball back when Explorers running back Ben Gedeon lost a fumble at the end of a 21-yard run.
This time the Panthers went 74 yards on 10 plays. Holley ignited the drive on a 33-yard pass to Michael Dzikowski, and Sterritt capped it on a three-yard run 45 seconds into the second quarter.
Michael Baldwin’s point-after kick was blocked, and Hudson remained up 7-6.
“Nick [Holley] is the guy who held it down for us all year,” Sterritt said. “But our whole team is the snake. You’ve got to take us all down to stop us.
“A lot of guys stepped up when they needed to, and we overcame adversity. We played with heart. We have to give it all we’ve got because, if we lose, that’ll be the last game a lot of our seniors will ever play.”
The Explorers answered with a 10-play, 63-yard scoring drive, which Gedeon (14 carries, 88 yards) capped with a one-yard plunge with 7:28 left in the half.
Whitmer responded with a quick five-play, 71-yard TD drive, all on the legs of Sterritt and Holley. Holley ran the final two yards around left end to pull the Panthers within 14-12 with 4:01 left in the half, and it stayed that way when a trick play on the extra-point try was botched.
Before the break, Guadagni lost his second fumble and was intercepted by Nate Holley.
“We just couldn’t find a way to stop the run,” Wright said. “That’s been our Achilles’ heel all year, at times, being able to stop the run.
“Their kids run really hard and we missed a lot of tackles. If you stop them inside they go outside. If you stop them outside, they go inside. When you commit to the run, they can throw the ball on you. They’re tough.”
Whitmer rushed for 371 yards and passed for 101. Hudson rushed for 115 and passed for 304.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.