A playoff run was just not in the cards for City League football champion Whitmer, as the clock ran out on an otherwise fruitful season for the eighth-ranked Panthers Saturday night against visiting Canton McKinley.
Using their superior team speed - particularly that of ultra-quick 5-9, 167-pound running back Bryce Wilder - the eighth-seeded Bulldogs (7-4) ran, passed, and returned their way to a 34-13 victory in a first-round Division I matchup.
Whitmer (9-2), the top seed in Region 2, entered this fray without two of its most valuable performers and team leaders.
Senior quarterback Joe Missler, who suffered a hip-pointer injury in the Panthers' regular-season finale against Start, managed just one play. That was a valiant 14-yard run with McKinley already
ahead 20-7 midway in the third quarter. It was all Missler (1,600-plus yards passing and receiving) could manage before limping off from the late experiment.
Senior Panther linebacker Shane Brown wasn't even that lucky. One of the team's top tacklers in each of the last two seasons, Brown saw his prep career end last week against Start with multiple leg fractures.
"It took away a big part of our game," Whitmer coach Joe Palka said, "but McKinley did what they needed to do to win. Wilder has speed, and he can cut on a dime. They have speed at almost every position, and they can take it the distance every time they touch the ball.
"For us, it just seemed like we misfired at the most inopportune times. Giving up the big play, or not finishing on offense."
Senior Randall Kennedy, who split QB time with Missler during the season and created a strong 1-2 backfield punch, did his best to fill the void. He completed 15 of 30 passes for 176 yards and a touchdown, plus ran for 28 yards.
But it was not nearly enough against a strong McKinley team that squeaked into the postseason with a Week-10 win over archrival Massillon Washington.
Wilder rushed 24 times for 148 yards and scored touchdowns on runs of eight and three yards, sandwiched around his 31-yard TD catch which basically sealed things by giving the Bulldogs a 27-7 lead with
2:37 left in the third quarter.
"I thought we had a great game plan coming in, and our kids really bought into what we were doing," McKinley coach Ron Johnson said. "Whitmer has a phenomenal defense, but we thought we had some good matchups and that we could get after them, and our kids made plays."
McKinley, which topped the Panthers 431-291 in total offense, also got a 9-of-15, 179-yard passing effort and 25-yard TD run from QB Kyle Ohradzansky.
"We don't like making excuses," Palka said, "but losing Joe and Shane, and playing with sophomores in some of those spots, made a difference at the end of the day. As much as we tried to say it didn't, it did.
"We still accomplished quite a bit, that's what I'm proud of. If we had those guys in, maybe it's a different outcome; maybe not. You've got to find a way to win football games even when you're banged up at the end of the year."
McKinley wasted little time unveiling its speed, with Wilder giving the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead just
1:43 into the game. First he returned a punt 57 yards to the Whitmer 8, then he took a pitch right for the final eight yards.
The quick-strike ability resurfaced on the Bulldogs' next possession, when Elijah Farrakhan broke a 17-yard run, and Ohradzansky went deep to Matt Ogletree for a 48-yard TD hookup on the second play.
Repeating the big-play theme, McKinley needed just two plays once again to score their third TD of the half. Wilder broke a 40-yard run, and Ohradzansky turned an apparent broken play into the 25-yard TD midway in the second quarter.
"Bryce Wilder is special, and our offensive line is phenomenal," Johnson said. "They've been going against Big Ten defensive [recruits] all year, and Bryce has run for over 1,500 yards."
Whitmer's touchdowns came from receiver Mike Pfaff on a 12-yard pass from Kennedy 54 seconds before halftime and from running back Teryl Mershon (17 carries, 75 yards) on a three-yard run with 4:51 left in the game.
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