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FINDLAY — No. 1-ranked Napoleon expected to face stiff competition from Bellevue on Saturday night.
But not even the top-ranked Wildcats could have anticipated what they dealt with in the Division III regional final at Donnell Stadium.
Bellevue quarterback Jalen Santoro created too much havoc for Napoleon and led the way to a surprising 35-20 upset win for the Redmen.
Santoro, who accounted for 398 total yards (234 rushing, 164 passing) delivered most of the damage before halftime to help the Redmen take a comfortable 28-6 lead into the break.
The six-foot, 155-pound senior had passed for 164 yards and two TDS, and rushed for 87 yards and a score by intermission. Not being able to contain Santoro was the primary reason for Napoleon's troubles.
Bellevue will face Dayton Marshall in a state semifinal on Saturday.
"I think early on we showed that we had a team that could at least contain and bottle up Santoro a little bit," Napoleon coach Tory Strock said. "But a couple of big plays early and that was a back-breaker because I thought we had some opportunities early.
"It just seemed like we were on our heels for most of the evening, and give them credit for that."
Santoro said the Redmen (12-1) stepped on the field looking to test themselves against the top-ranked team in the state. They showed they were up for the challenge.
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"It wasn't easy," said Santoro, who logged 45 carries, including a four-yard touchdown run to give the Redmen a 14-6 lead late in the first quarter.
The Northern Lakes League champions also struggled to sustain any consistency on offense against the Redmen, who held the Wildcats (11-1-1) to their third lowest scoring output of the season.
A 21-yard touchdown completion from David Yunker to Jordan Lauf, which capped a six-play, 72-yard scoring drive, was the lone offensive bright spot for the Wildcats before the break.
Stephen Yunker set up the Wildcats' second score of the night by intercepting a pass inside the Redmen's 10 with just under nine minutes left in the third quarter. Bryant Schlade scored on a one-yard run three plays later to help the Wildcats cut the Redmen's lead to 28-12. A six-yard touchdown reception by Lauf from Yunker (10-24-107) made it 35-20 late in the third quarter against a swarming Bellevue defense.
Napoleon running back Charlie Harris was held to 42 yards rushing on 10 carries while Max Westhoven was limited to 41 yards on eight carries.
"We knew coming in this was going to be a battle," said Lauf, who caught five passes for 48 yards. "They made plays more than we did and the score says it.
"We were coming in to battle and that's what it was a battle."
Bellevue established early control of the momentum when it put together a scoring drive on its second possession to take an early 7-0 advantage.
The Redmen struck quickly by going 70 yards on four plays. Santoro delivered a perfect strike to wideout Derek Smith for a 58-yard touchdown completion with 6:57 left in the first quarter. Santoro had ample time in the pocket, and it allowed Smith to get behind Napoleon defensive back Nick George for the long-distance TD completion.
But the Wildcats came right back and put points on the scoreboard. They drove 72 yards in six plays with Lauf coming through with a one-hand 21-yard touchdown grab with 3:48 remaining in the opening quarter. Joey DeVaul's extra-point try was blocked and Bellevue led 7-6.
Bellevue came right back with its next possession and marched 80 yards on five plays to go up 14-6 after Santoro finished off the drive with a four-yard keeper. A 59-yard completion from Santoro to Smith helped set up the Redmen's second score.
The Redmen added to their lead in the second quarter after Yunker was intercepted near midfield by defensive back Trent Stamm.
Bellevue took over the possession and surprised Napoleon when wideout Clay Fries took a pitch from Santoro and fired a 36-yard strike to Stamm for a touchdown to make it 21-6 with 6:45 remaining in the second quarter.
The Redmen added to the lead by putting together a fourth scoring drive before halftime. Santoro found Nick Raifsnider for a 25-yard touchdown pass with seven seconds left in the first half.
The 22-point halftime deficit appeared to be the beginning of the end of the Wildcats' best season in school history. The hole was too deep to climb out of against the Redmen.
Nonetheless, Strock said the season-ending loss doesn't diminish a season long on successes led by a determined senior class.
"They came day in and day out and were focused and ready to work," Strock said. "They weren't a group that just talked about it, but they lived it every day."