In a year that is anything but normal, the Waverly Tigers are entering uncharted territory.
Past Tiger teams have won playoff games, but no Waverly team has ever won two regional football games in a row in the same season until Saturday night.
Facing a defensive stalwart in Cincinnati Archbishop McNicholas, the Waverly defense put on a clinic of its own in front of the home crowd in the Oct. 24 Division IV Region 16 playoff game at Raidiger Field, roaring to a 34-13 triumph.
Defensively for the Tigers, Will Futhey, Penn Morrison and Mark Stulley produced a trio of interceptions, while Zeke Brown had a blocked kick, just to name a few highlight plays for the Tigers. Phoenix Wolf broke up two passes, and Wyatt Crabtree led all tacklers with 10 total on the night, including a pair for a combined 6-yard loss.
With the win, the Tigers (8-0) will now have a tall task ahead of them, as they will travel to Clarksville to face the top-seeded Clinton-Massie Falcons (8-0) on Frank Irelan Field. Both Clinton-Massie and Waverly have been a part of the Associated Press polls and in the top 10 for Division IV. In the Oct. 19 poll, Clinton-Massie was ranked first out of all Division IV teams, while the Waverly Tigers checked in at eighth.
In order to set up that contest, the Tigers needed to ground the McNicholas Rockets and launch themselves against their stout defense.
Facing a team that has surrendered an average of 10.3 points per game, the Tigers put up 34 points. McNicholas has not given up more than 28 points all year, and in most games less. The Rockets had recorded two shutouts, including a 27-0 win at Unioto to begin the post-season.
The Rockets had the ball first to start the playoff battle with the Tiers, but they didn’t have it long as the Waverly defense was up to the task of making them go three-and-out.
“They wanted the ball first. We take pride in stopping people,” said Zeke Brown. “We got a three-and-out, and then the offense started rolling from there. We knew they were a good team. They are pretty athletic in what they do. It was good to get the momentum. That’s huge for us to put up 34 points. Defensively, for them to get 13 points, I feel like that’s a lot and way too many for my liking.”
The Rockets’ first punt was downed at the Tiger 36-yard line where Waverly began a slow and steady drive, picking up chunks of yardage on the ground with the line creating holes for hard-running back Jaxson Poe to get through. Quarterback Haydn’ Shanks completed short passes to Zeke Brown, Penn Morrison and Phoenix Wolf along the way. Poe finished the 10-play, 64-yard drive, using a hard 8-yard run to get to the 1-yard line. On the next handoff, he was in the end zone with 7:40 left on the clock in the opening quarter. Ben Flanders connected on the point-after, giving the Tigers the 7-0 lead.
McNicholas worked to counter with an answering drive. Quarterback Pierce Taylor broke his team’s largest run of the night thus far, going 25 yards after Wyatt Crabtree delivered a tackle-for-loss on the previous play. Later in the drive on 4th-and-2, Rocket Tyler Snyder broke a 20-yard run. Two plays later, Snyder finished the drive with a 6-yard run for the touchdown, pulling McNicholas within one. That was as close as the Rockets could come. Zeke Brown leaped high to block the kick with a resounding thud, keeping the score at 7-6 with 2:42 left in the opening quarter.
Never seeming rattled, the Tigers picked up a pair of first downs on their next drive before stalling and bringing Flanders on to punt the ball away after Shanks was sacked for a 16-yard loss.
McNicholas didn’t keep the ball long, as for the second straight week, Will Futhey from the defensive end position, snatched a pass at the line of scrimmage for the first Waverly interception of the night.
Then on the very first offensive play, Shanks aired the ball out to a leaping Penn Morrison who snagged it and fought his way to the 1-yard line on a 47-yard pickup. Then Poe finished the job with a 1-yard run, giving the Tigers a 13-6 advantage with 31 seconds left in the quarter.
“Penn was like a sparkplug,” said Zeke Brown of his teammate. “He’s hidden in the corner. He’s just as good of a receiver as the others, but he doesn’t get as much attention. Penn is good for some big plays every night. When the defenses key on certain guys, Penn is right there. It is great.”
Once again, the Waverly defense was up to the task. After Snyder broke a 16-yard run, the defense tightened and didn’t allow another first down on the drive. The punt gave the ball back to the Tigers on the 15-yard line with 10:25 left in the half.
From there, Waverly put together a 13-play, 85-yard drive. Will Futhey had receptions of 19, 26, and 8 yards on the drive, before finishing with a 6-yard touchdown pass to complete the drive. The point-after kick from Flanders was good, 20-6, with 6:30 left in the half. The Tigers took that lead into half time.
Starting the second half with the ball, Wolf collected the McNicholas kickoff at the 7-yard line and returned it 24 yards. Then the Tigers went to work.
Wolf had receptions of 6, 9, 14 and 4 on passes from Shanks in between runs from Poe. The Tigers moved to the McNicholas 9-yard line where the drive nearly stalled. But on 4th-and-goal at the 5-yard line, Shanks scrambled left and right before lofting a pass in the direction of Zeke Brown, who made a rolling dive to secure the catch in the end zone. The kick from Flanders made it 27-6 with 7:39 left in the third quarter.
The Rockets appeared to be picking up steam and looked to answer with their next drive. When Taylor opted to try a long pass to a leaping receiver at the Waverly 4-yard line, Mark Stulley was there, coming away with the ball for the Tigers’ second interception.
“One of the toughest guys on the team is Mark Stulley,” said quarterback Haydn’ Shanks. “The little fella works extremely hard. He’s not afraid of anybody. It could be a 6-foot-8, 300-pounder, and Mark’s going to hit him as hard as he can and do everything he can to stop him.”
With 4:32 left in the quarter, Waverly looked to use the clock, mixing runs from Peyton Harris in between a pair of big catches by Morrison of 14 and 25 yards. The Rockets’ defense stiffened again. On 3rd-and-15, Futhey had a catch for a 14 yard gain. But on 4th-and-1, the snap sailed over Shanks’ head and his only choice was to run back and cover it. That gave the ball to the Rockets on their own 28-yard line.
Two plays later, Taylor tried to throw long again, but Penn Morrison went up for a one-handed interception, giving the ball back to the Tigers once more. This time they turned the opportunity into points.
Futhey, Brown and Morrison all secured passes from Shanks, while Harris and Poe each gained some ground on runs. Poe had a finishing 1-yard run, followed by a kick from Flanders. With 8:04 left on the clock, the Tigers had a 34-6 lead.
The Rockets scored for the second and final time in the game on the next drive. They put together a 6-play, 71-yard drive, finishing with a 22-yard pass from Taylor to Nick Clark. The kick made it 34-13 with 6:02 to play.
Waverly followed with a time consuming drive, working the clock down to 1:51 when Shanks’ pass was intercepted at the McNicholas 13-yard line. The Rockets looked to try and score one final time, but the Tiger defense prevented it as Keith Doughman and Jacob Crisp had the final two tackles for the defense as time ran out.
Waverly finished the contest with 26 first downs, while limiting McNicholas to 14. The Rockets outgained the Tigers on the ground, producing 178 rushing yards, while Waverly netted 109. However, Shanks had nearly three times the passing yards, finishing at 322, while Taylor had 108. In terms of total offense, Waverly finished at 431 while McNicholas ended at 280.
For the Rockets, Taylor was the leading rusher with 20 carries for 132 yards. He was 9-of-21 passing with 108 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions. Clark was the leading receiver with 4 catches for 74 yards and a touchdown.
For the game, Shanks completed 29-of-39 passes for 322 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. Morrison was the leading receiver with 8 catches for 133 yards, followed by Futhey with 7 receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown. Zeke Brown also caught 7 passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. Phoenix Wolf secured 7 for 42 yards.
All four of those guys contributed defensively in big ways. Morrison had 3 tackles and an interception. Wolf also had 3 tackles and broke up 2 passes. Futhey piled up 8 total tackles (7 solo, 1 assist), including 2 combining for a total of 37 yards loss, as well as an interception. Brown was in on 5 total tackles (4 solo, 1 assist), 1 for a 5-yard loss, and a blocked kick.
Morrison, the ‘under-the-radar receiver’, said he loves that role.
“I like the title a lot. I like flying under the radar. It is fun,” Morrison. “This win means so much. That’s history. We’ve never done this before. Everyone did their job. It was a complete team effort. It is great to beat a team of that caliber. It shows how good we are. We have to be focused and get ready for the next one. It will be tough.”
“Penn doesn’t get the recognition that the other guys do,” said Shanks “He works just as hard as the other guys. He’s just as good. If they key on one receiver, we have other guys. Penn is a go-to receiver. I trust him to go make plays for me when I get the ball to him. He does that in key moments for us.”
Shanks added, “Hats off to the defense for getting stops and hats off to Penn for getting that interception.”
Stulley had 7 tackles and an interception. Keith Doughman provided 6. Spencer Pollard added 2, while Logan Long and Trey Brushart added 1 each. Jacob Crisp and Devon McGuinn each had an assist on a tackle. McGuin and Crabtree also shared a sack. Pollard, the center of the starting offensive line, along with the rest of the starting offensive linemen Brock Adams, Andrew Welch, Aiden Diehl and Blaise Reader, protected Shanks and provided holes for Poe and Harris to run through. Poe had 21 carries for 95 yards and 3 touchdowns. Harris followed with 7 carries for 26 yards.
“These guys work incredibly hard. The line and the receivers do all of the work,” said Shanks. “I just distribute the ball and they do all the work. This week, we told the line that, ‘This game is going won by you guys up front.’ I told Poe, ‘I’m going to give you the rock until they stop you, and that’s what we did.’ He had three rushing touchdowns. When we can run the ball, that opens the passing lanes up for me, and I let my receivers go and do work.”
Waverly Head Football Coach Chris Crabtree loves the way his players work together as a true team.
“We have a lot of guys who play a role week in and week out. They just do their job. Penn (Morrison) has had a great year all year on both sides of the ball. He made some key plays, going back to the Wheelersburg game. Tonight, he made some crucial catches to get first downs for us. We have a lot of guys who can catch the ball. If you double up someone, that opens someone else.”
After the graduation of 2,000-plus yard rusher Payton Shoemaker, the Tigers needed a running back to step into that spot. Poe, who served as the backup a year ago, has filled the void.
“I can’t say enough about Jaxson Poe. He’s playing both sides of the ball, at running back and on the defensive line. He really did a great job of establishing the run tonight. He ran hard. That’s something we wanted to do was to be physical in the run game,” said Crabtree.
“We knew they had a good defense. We challenged our guys up front (the offensive line) and they took the challenge. They wanted to keep Haydn’ clean, protect him, and open up holes; they did that. They did a great job of opening running lanes for Jaxson (Poe) and Peyton (Harris) tonight as well.”
The special post-season run by the history-making Tigers isn’t over yet.
“We have a team. I talk to these guys about playing for each other. When you have a team that believes in each other, plays for each other, and loves each other, good things are going to happen. This is a special group and they are doing great things right now,” said Crabtree.
“Winning two playoff games is another check mark for us. We will take another week here and get to work. We’ve been fortunate to be at home, so we will take the show on the road for a bit.”