Van Wert put the wraps on a fine 8-2 (7-2 WBL) regular season and clinched a home playoff game with a 37-0 victory over visiting Defiance on Friday.
The Cougars will be the No. 3 seed in Division IV, Region 14, and will likely host the Huron Tigers (7-3) on Saturday in the first ever playoff game at Eggerss Stadium. Official first round pairings will be announced on Sunday.
Jake Hilleary (16) runs for yards against the Defiance defense. Photo courtesy of Jerry Mason
“Van Wert football has been around for a long time and there’s been a lot of good teams, so to do something that no one else has – I’m just very proud of our guys for being able to accomplish that,” head coach Keith Recker said. “It’s neat for our team, our school, our community, and it’s nice to see how this brings everybody together.”
Under cold, rainy and windy conditions, Defiance (4-6, 3-6 WBL) didn’t go down without a fight. The Bulldogs committed 10 and sometimes 11 defenders to the line of scrimmage in hopes of slowing Van Wert’s running game, but had to back off when the Cougars used two big plays to go up by three scores.
Leading 6-0 with 7:23 left in the second quarter, Van Wert took possession of the ball at the Cougar 38 and scored three plays later on Nate Place’s 60 yard touchdown run. TJ Reynolds booted the PAT to give Van Wert a 13-0 lead.
After forcing Defiance into a three and out, the Cougars got the ball at their own fourteen yard and scored two plays later when Place lofted a picture perfect 80 yard touchdown pass down the home sideline to Tanner Barnhart, who never broke stride on the way to the end zone.
“We were kind of running against a brick wall a little bit because Defiance has a good run defense,” Recker said. “We kept trying to get our running game going and just couldn’t.”
“Tanner’s been playing really well at receiver, and he had a nice route and finished it. That really opened things up because now they understood that we were going to try to pass they ball and that really helped our run game.”
Armed with a 19-0 halftime lead, Van Wert found the end zone twice more in the third quarter. Place fired a 28 yard scoring strike to a wide open Owen Treece at the 8:43 mark, then after Dru Johnson’s interception deep ended Defiance’s only scoring threat of the night, the Cougars put together a seven play drive that ended with an eight yard touchdown run by Place that increased the lead to 34-0.
The drive included a 19 yard completion from Place to Jake Hilleary and a 35 yard run by Hilleary, and it sparked the continuous clock rule for the remainder of the game.
Van Wert’s Isaiah Bretz (81) and Jalen McCracken (23) combine for a stop against the Bulldogs. Jerry Mason photo
The final points of the game came on a 29 yard field goal by Reynolds with 53 seconds left in the third quarter.
Place finished the game with 13 carries for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Hilleary had 16 carries for 180 yards to push him over 1,000 yards rushing for the season. Hilleary also scored Van Wert’s first touchdown of the night on a four yard run with 49 seconds left in the opening quarter.
“I think he deserves any and all recognition he’s going to get this year for what he’s done,” Recker said of Hilleary. “He’s such a good compliment with how good Nate is. He’s a very good runner and when we need yards, he’s going to get them for us.”
Place completed 9 of 16 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns. In addition to Barnhart’s reception, Drew Bagley had four catches for 14 yards and Treece had a pair of receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, the Cougars held Defiance to 186 total yards, including 63 in the first half. Aaron Cruz completed 10 of 21 passes for 105 yards and one interception and had 56 yards rushing on eight carries.
Van Wert 6 14 17 0 – 37
Defiance 0 0 0 0 – 0
:43 1st qtr: Jake Hilleary 4 yard run (kick failed)
6:55 2nd qtr: Nate Place 60 yard run (TJ Reynolds kick)
3:59 2nd qtr: Nate Place 80 yard pass to Tanner Barnhart (TJ Reynolds kick)
8:43 3rd qtr: Nate Place 28 yard pass to Owen Treece (TJ Reynolds kick)
3:53 3rd qtr: Nate Place 8 yard run (TJ Reynolds kick)
:53 3rd qtr: TJ Reynolds 29 yard field goal