MASSILLON, Ohio — Facing the highest-ranked team still alive in the Ohio Division I football playoffs, the Whitmer Panthers slugged it out on even terms with Lakewood St. Edward until halftime Saturday night.
But the third-ranked Eagles (14-0), aided by three Whitmer turnovers after the break, owned much of the second half in taking a 23-13 victory over the City League champions in a D-I semifinal at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.
“We came out and turned the ball over and had a punt blocked, and we put them on two short fields to start the second half,” Panthers coach Joe Palka said.
“Really, that was the end of the story. From then on, we couldn't make up the gap.
“We played pretty well in the first half and had a chance. But you just can't make mistakes against a good, quality team.”
Tied 7-7 at the break, St. Ed capitalized on the first of the Whitmer turnovers, a lost fumble by Denzel
Brown after a pass reception at his 40 on the second play of the third quarter.
Eagles quarterback Kevin Burke hit Sam Grant on a 29-yard pass to set up Burke's subsequent 22-yard touchdown run for a 13-7 lead 2:40 into the period. Burke, who was 8-of-12 passing for 119 yards, also rushed 15 times for 96 more.
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A partially blocked punt by the Eagles hurt the Panthers (12-2), as Burke's 30-yard pass to Ryan Giachetti led to a 23-yard field goal from Mike DiNunzio for a 16-7 St. Ed lead midway in the third quarter.
The clincher for the Eagles, who topped Whitmer 372-252 in total offense, came on Burke's eight-yard TD pass to Quincy Jones on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 23-7 edge.
“It's been an unbelievable year and an unbelievable ride,” Palka said. “I thought this team was capable of getting to a state championship game. We fell a little bit short, but not for lack of effort.
“I couldn't be prouder of what we accomplished – City League champions, regional champions. I think we gave St. Ed their game of the year so far.”
The Eagles later appeared poised for an insurance score with 3:58 remaining, earning a first-and-goal at the Whitmer 9. But the Panthers' Ohio State-bound defensive end Kenny Hayes deflected a pitchout from Burke, and Whitmer tackle Andrew Maciolek returned the fumble 50 yards to the Eagles 25.
That set up a Whitmer TD, and briefly gave the upset-minded, 13th-ranked Panthers some life as senior quarterback Alex Palicki scored on a six-yard run with 2:44 remaining.
Needing a two-point conversion to get within eight points, however, Palicki's pass to Nigel Hayes was broken up by the Eagles' Avery Bailey.
Palicki was 15-of-23 passing for 128 yards and a TD, and rushed 16 times for a team-high 74 yards and Whitmer's other score.
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Whitmer then recovered its second onsides kickoff of the game before the Panthers' third lost fumble of the half sealed their fate.
St. Ed advanced to its fourth state final, where the Eagles will meet Huber Heights Wayne for the title Saturday in Canton.
The Eagles started with authority, driving 78 yards on 11 plays on their first possession, and taking a 7-0 lead on Terrell Bates' seven-yard run.
After a 21-yard punt by the Eagles' Chris Cameron, Whitmer got the ball at its 41 and marched 59 yards on nine plays to gain a 7-7 tie.
Palicki sparked the Panthers with his 28-yard completion to Alonzo Lucas, and ended the drive with an 11-yard TD toss to Brown 44 seconds into the second quarter.
“Everyone on the team gave it their best effort and tried to the last play,” Palicki said. “Everyone just wanted it so bad, but it didn't happen tonight. It's been an awesome year.
“We felt good at halftime. We thought we had a chance. But we just made a few mistakes and that cost us the game.”
“Alex made the throws and he also ran pretty well,” Palka said, “and he also managed the game pretty well.
“We've got a lot of young guys [coming back] and the future bodes well. Once you're here and get this close, it really gets you hungry to get in that state championship game. It wasn't today, but we'll be back soon.”
The Panthers missed out on a chance to take a lead just before halftime. Taking the ball at their 30 with 4:24 left in the half, they moved 60 yards on eight plays to the Eagles' 10 before the surge stalled, and Jared Kenczewicz missed on a 27-yard field-goal try from a tough angle the left hash mark on the final play of the half.
“Whitmer's a tremendous team,” St. Ed coach Rick Finotti said. “They have a lot of skill. A quarterback who can throw the ball and good receivers, and their offense is tough. And they have two backs that you have to worry about.
“They were a heck of a team. I told our team at halftime that, if we wanted it, we had to go out and get it. Whitmer was playing tough football. The two teams fought tooth and nail for every inch tonight.”
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Facing the highest-ranked team still alive in the Ohio Division I football playoffs, the Whitmer Panthers slugged it out on even terms with Lakewood St. Edward until halftime Saturday night. But the third-ranked Eagles (14-0), aided by three Whitmer turnovers after the break, owned much of the second half in taking a 23-13 victory over the City League champions in a D-I semifinal at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.