MANSFIELD — For the third straight season, Whitmer will be moving on to the Division I state football semifinals.
The third-ranked Panthers (13-0) earned that berth Saturday night by jumping out early on 10th-ranked Massillon Washington, and cruising to a 49-16 victory over the Tigers in a Region 2 final at Mansfield’s Arlin Field.
“This is unbelievable,” first-year Whitmer head coach Jerry Bell said. “This was our goal, and these seniors have worked so hard. This was the 41st game they’ve played in three years, and this one was for our senior class. Massillon is a phenomenal team and very explosive, and we were able to neutralize them tonight.”
Senior quarterback Nick Holley ran for 116 yards, and was 10-of-17 passing for 137 yards and a touchdown to trigger the Panthers’ attack, and senior running backs Tre Sterritt (14 carries, 71 yards, three TDs) and Me’Gail Frisch (13 carries, 81 yards, two TDs) contributed mightily to Whitmer’s 409-313 edge (272-54 rushing) in total offense.
The rest was up to the Panther defense, which bent but did not break in containing Massillon’s high-powered 43-points-per-game offense. It was the third playoff win by Whitmer over Massillon since 2006.
Now 38-3 overall since 2010, Whitmer will face seventh-ranked Mentor (12-1) in a semifinal Saturday at 7 p.m. at a site to be determined.
Mentor advanced by beating defending state champion Cleveland St. Ignatius 57-56 in three overtimes in Saturday night’s Region 1 final.
In an otherwise superb first half where they could do little wrong, the Panthers spotted Massillon a 7-0 lead 49 seconds into the game.
On their second play from scrimmage, the Tigers scored on a 54-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Kempt to Gareon Conley.
The Tigers would not reach the end zone again until 7:42 remained in the game, and by then they trailed by 32 points.
Whitmer’s first drive stalled at the its 47 after seven plays, but Nate Holley’s punt ignited a furious scoring surge.
Tigers return man Marcus Whitfield muffed the punt at his 10, the ball bounced toward the goal line, Whitfield was knocked away by Marcus Elliott, and Keith Howell recovered in the end zone for a touchdown with 8:30 left in the opening quarter.
After kicking the extra point, Panther placekicker Michael Baldwin executed an onside kick and recovered himself at the Massillon 45.
Holley ran for 35 yards on the next play, a Tigers late hit moved it to the five, and Frisch went around right end the final five yards for a 14-7 Whitmer lead 21 seconds after its first TD.
“When they scored right away it was like, ‘...what did we get ourselves into?’ But we responded, and we just had that fire underneath us,” Nick Holley said. “The momentum changed, and I think we had it for the whole game after that.”
The Panthers’ next drive covered 55 yards on seven plays, with Tre Sterritt carrying for the final yard and a 21-7 Whitmer advantage with 4:29 left in the first quarter.
The offensive surge continued after the Whitmer defense stopped Massillon on a fourth-down play at its 35. Once again the Panthers used seven plays to find the end zone, this time with Sterritt going 12 yards through the middle on the first play of the second quarter.
Massillon briefly interrupted the Whitmer express, marching 61 yards on 13 plays before having to settle for Andrew David’s 29-yard field goal with 7:33 left in the half.
The Panthers traded punts with the Tigers, then launched their fourth offensive scoring drive of the half from their 40.
They used 12 plays to move those 60 yards, and Sterritt capped it on a five-yard TD run over left guard 39 seconds before halftime, which arrived with Whitmer holding a commanding 35-10 lead.
“We knew if we just played our game we’d come back,” Sterritt said. “They’re a great offensive team and have a good defense too. We knew we had to respond and we couldn’t let our heads down.
“The momentum just came from us working hard, and believing we were going to win.”
After a scoreless third quarter, Whitmer added a touchdown on the second play of the fourth, capping a monster 16-play, 80-yard drive on Holley’s five-yard TD pass to twin brother Nate Holley for a 42-10 lead on the Tigers.
Most importantly, that drive took 7:51 off the clock, preventing Massillon from staging any comeback bid.
“The defensive staff and offensive staff were dialed in on the play-calling,” Bell said. “We thought we had to be able to run the football against them, and keep the ball out of the hands of their offense. We were able to do that.”
“Our defense is stingy, and we’ve been playing like that all year,” Panther senior defensive tackle Marquise Moore said. “That’s the mindset you have to have going into any game.”
The Tigers’ second TD came on an 11-yard pass from Kempt to Conley.
Kempt was 19-of-32 passing for 259 yards, and Ryan Moore topped the Tigers in rushing with 52 yards on 17 carries.
“We knew if we stopped the big plays we would have a shot at stopping them and winning the game,” senior third-year starting linebacker Jack Linch said. “We did that throughout the game.
“We’ve played a lot of games the last three years. We’re an experienced football team and I think we can go all the way if we just keep working hard.”
Whitmer closed the scoring on Frisch’s six-yard TD run with 4:24 remaining.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.