When the matchup materialized, Colerain coach Tom Bolden said, “It wouldn’t be high school playoffs without Colerain and St. X getting after it.” And Friday night at Hamilton’s Virgil M. Schwarm Stadium, the Bombers and Cardinals put on a show for the ages.
This year it was the boys in blue that shocked Colerain, the No. 1-ranked team in the state and No. 14 team in the Super 25, 29-23 in overtime in a Division I regional semifinal.
“What a game,” said St. Xavier coach Steve Specht. “You can’t ask for a better game … $8 for that, you gotta be kidding me. That’s fantastic.”
St. Xavier (7-5) scored 16 unanswered points to force overtime.
On the first possession of overtime, Colerain went three-and-out and missed a 34-yard field goal. Then, on St. Xavier’s first play, senior quarterback Sean Clifford hit Nicholas Moeller for a 20-yard game-winning touchdown.
“It was a hell of call, I can tell you that much. When it works, it’s always a hell of a call.”
Clifford, who entered the game near the end of the first quarter in place of an injured Chase Wolf, said, “That’s our mentality … Coach Specht always says we play hard, but we play dumb sometimes. We’re going for it all every single time. Right when I saw that coverage I knew it was a touchdown. I almost overthrew him cause I was so excited we were gonna get it.”
St. X snatched up the momentum with 90 seconds left in the third quarter and never really let go. Colerain held a 23-7 lead when St. Xavier senior linebacker Brady Stoll shocked his team back to life by blocking a punt that Carl Grimm returned four yards for a touchdown. The Bombers’ two-point conversion attempt failed, and they trailed 23-13 after three quarters.
“You felt there was a huge momentum shift,” said Specht. “When we stopped them … when we blocked the punt you could feel the momentum shift. It almost gets out of control for you. I’ve been on both ends of it and we felt like we had the momentum there the rest of that second half.”
On its next possession, Clifford, playing for the first time since tearing his hamstring against Warren Central (Ind.) on Oct. 14, connected with Moeller for a 31-yard gain on third-and-14 to keep the drive alive. Then, facing third-and-nine, Clifford kept it for an 11-yard touchdown run that cut Colerain’s lead to 23-20 with 7:50 to play.
The Bombers forced a three-and-out on Colerain’s ensuing possession, and proceeded to march right back down the field against Colerain’s defense to tie the game, 23-23, on a 30-yard field goal by Kevin Rockwood with 6:03 left in the game.
Then, with Colerain driving in St. X territory, the Bombers recovered a fumble to deflate Colerain’s hope of ending it in regulation.
“The fumble recovery was big for us,” Specht said. “These kids just grind.”
Clifford, a Penn State commit, finished with 87 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown, to go with 10 of 21 passing for 131 yards and a score.
“Sean’s been hurt,” Specht said. “He tore his hamstring against Warren Central and really this was the first week he had come back and … he’s healthy. We didn’t know how healthy he was until he got on the field tonight. But Chase Wolf’s done a great job for us, too. When you have two quality quarterbacks that bodes well for you.”
Bolden said, “Losing’s always tough. These games are always gonna come down to the wire and we just made too many mistakes down the stretch. We can’t have a punt blocked for a touchdown. You can’t fumble the ball. We just made too many mistakes. Hats off to St. X.”
St. Xavier struck first to start the game. Senior Micah Farrar returned the opening kickoff 40 yards, to help the Bombers strike first on a six-play, 46-yard drive, capped by a 3-yard touchdown run by senior Quinn Earley less than two minutes into the game.
On Colerain’s first possession, the Cardinals went three-and-out but St. X was called for roughing the kicker which kept Colerain’s offense on the field. Two plays later, Colerain’s bruising senior fullback Monalo Caldwell was in the end zone, but the point after failed.
So barely three minutes into the game, St. X led Colerain 7-6.
On St. Xavier’s next two possessions, Colerain sacked Wolf on consecutive third downs to force punts. The latter sack by Ivan Pace Jr. and Kawantay Stanley kept Wolf sidelined for the remainder of the game.
With a minute left in the first quarter, Colerain junior quarterback Gunnar Leyendecker hit J.J. Davis in the flat and he took it 26 yards down the sideline for a touchdown to give Colerain a 13-7 advantage after one quarter.
In the second quarter, both defenses settled in as expected. Facing fourth-and-five from St. Xavier’s 45-yard line, Colerain called a fake punt to Kyle Bolden who ran it around the left side for a 23-yard gain, but the Cardinals couldn’t turn it into any points, missing a 39-yard field goal.
It looked like Colerain landed a knockout blow, clinging to a 13-7 lead, a St. X pass interference call on third down kept the Colerain offense on the field. The very next play, Leyendecker caught senior Keontae Jones in stride down the sideline for a 51-yard touchdown that gave the Cardinals a 20-7 lead at intermission.
After St. X forced a Colerain punt to start the second half, senior cornerback Amir Riep, an Ohio State commit, forced a fumble and junior linebacker Dan Bolden recovered to setup a 27-yard field goal by Ryan Murray to extend Colerain’s lead, 23-7.
Colerain finished with 409 yards of offense, but they were shutout after the 4:39-mark of the third quarter.
“You just try to console them,” said Bolden. “Your heart goes out to them. You want them to lose with class, that’s the biggest thing … I feel for those seniors. My heart goes out to them, especially No. 7 (Kyle Bolden). It’s a little tough for me this year. I’m trying to be as professional as I can but I have a senior son who just played his last high school game. The unfortunate thing … I’ve talked to him a little bit but probably not as much as I should.”
St. Xavier, which has battled major injury after major injury and a brutal regular season schedule, will play Sycamore, a 20-7 winner against Mason on Friday, in the regional championship on Friday at a location that will be announced later this weekend by the OHSAA.
Specht said, “They could have packed it in after Week 1. We talked at length after that first game against St. John Bosco. We talked about where do we go from here. We got embarrassed on national TV. I said, ‘Guys, do you realize how many of you have never taken a varsity football snap?’ I said, ‘Guys, we’re gonna be okay, we just gotta weather the storm.
“They’ve never quit. They just come out and play. They play hard. We don’t play smart, but we play hard.”