More than a decade removed from its last deep playoff run, Bellevue showed in a big way Saturday, it’s ready to do battle with the big boys of Division III. The Redmen — ranked seventh in the final Associated Press Poll — came out and hit top-ranked Napoleon right square in the mouth, taking a three-score lead to halftime en route to an impressive 35-20 victory in the regional finals at Findlay’s Donnell Stadium.
Redmen quarterback Jalen Santoro, as he’s been most of the season, was at the forefront. He accounted for 251 yards of offense (164 passing and 87 rushing) and three scores in the opening half alone, as Bellevue (12-1) stormed out to a 28-6 halftime advantage.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Santoro, who ran for 234 yard total yards on 45 carries. “We started out great and we executed.”
Santoro’s total put him 15 yards shy of the 2,000-yard plateau on the season. He ran the ball each of Bellevue’s final 26 plays, including 15 to run the final 7:01 off the clock after an interception by Alex Manner halted Napoleon’s last drive.
Bellevue will play fourth-ranked Dayton Thurgood Marshall at 7 p.m. Saturday at Ohio Wesleyan. It’s the Redmen’s first regional title since 2001 and the third under long-time coach Ed Nasonti.
“Maybe the third time will be the charm,” said Nasonti, now in his 22nd season. “We’re going to enjoy it tonight and get back to work and give it a shot.
“Our kids are playing their best ball of the year right when they should be.”
Bellevue out-gained the Wildcats (11-1-1) 441-196, including a decisive 243-90 on the ground.
But it was the Redmen passing game in the first and second quarters that caught Napoleon off-guard. Following a three-and-out on its opening possession, Bellevue got on the board first on a quick four-play, 70-yard drive,. Santoro, with ample time to throw, delivered a perfect strike to wideout Derek Smith, who got behind the Wildcat defense for 58-yard score. Jake Strayer’s extra point made it 7-0 Bellevue at the 6:57 mark of the opening quarter.
Santoro and Smith connected for 59 yards on the next drive to get Bellevue down the Wildcats’ 15-yard-line. Two plays and two Santoro carries later, the Redmen lead was 14-6 with 1:28 left in the first quarter.
“My line is awesome,” Santoro said. “That’s why I feed them every Sunday. Those guys are my best friends. I’ve been hanging out with them since I was in first grade. This is what happens when you have that tight-knit group.”
Bellevue used a little trickery on its third score. Moments after defensive back Trent Stamm intercepted Wildcats’ quarterback David Yunker at the Bellevue 38, the Redmen went to the well, calling a reverse-pass that ended with receiver Clay Fries finding Stamm for a 34-yard score and 21-6 edge midway through the second quarter.
“We’ve been sitting on that,” said Nasonti of the play call. “We were pretty close to putting it out there last week (28-27 victory over Perkins) but we didn’t, so we knew we had it in our pocket.”
With time winding down before the half, Santoro found Nick Raifsnider from 23 yards out with seven seconds left for a three-score lead.
“Their (the Redmen’s) forte isn’t that big pass play, but they obviously have guys that can do that,” Wildcats coach Tory Strock said. “I think early on we showed that we had a scheme that could at least contain and bottle-up Santoro a little bit. A couple big plays early, and that was a back-breaker.
“We had some opportunities after that, but it just seemed like we were on our heels most of the evening.”
Napoleon cut the deficit to 28-12 early in the third quarter, before Raifsnider took a 71-yard punt return to the house at the 5:22 mark to give Bellevue a commanding 35-12 edge.
“I never really felt like we had momentum at any point, I thought maybe we were starting to gain some there … then that punt return,” Strock said. “That was huge. The way this team has persevered all season, I didn’t think we’d lose.”
Yunkers’ six-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Lauf pulled Napoleon back within two scores with 2:19 remaining in the third quarter. The six-play, 56-yard drive answered Raifsnider’s return.
Yunker finished 10-of-24 for 106 yards and two scores, both to Lauf. Lauf, a 6-foot-5-inch University of Toledo basketball recruit, finished with five catches for 47 yards.
Bellevue ran the ball 50 times as Santoro finished 4-of-11 passing. Smith led the Redmen receivers with two catches for 117 yards, while Raifsnider added two grabs for 47 yards.
“It’s awesome,” said Santoro of advancing. “It’s what everyone dreams of. Since Day One of high school football, this is what you work for in August.”