HEATH, Ohio — Plenty of moral victories … which unfortunately don’t amount to much on the scoreboard.
The Gallia Academy football team struck first, but host Heath reeled off 21 unanswered points Friday night en route to a 21-2 victory in a Division IV, Region 15 opening round playoff game at Swank Field in Licking County.
The 13th-seeded Blue Devils (4-4) put up a valiant fight for four quarters of play, despite suffering numerous injuries throughout the game with an already limited roster — but the fourth-seeded Bulldogs (9-2) ultimately proved to be a bit too much to deal with throughout a steady downpour of rain.
GAHS mustered only six first downs and 52 yards of total offense by night’s end, but the guests also had three interior linemen, a pair of wide receivers and a quarterback all miss multiple plays throughout the course of the contest.
And despite having a roster than ran roughly around 25-strong, the Blue and White still found ways to prevent HHS from running away with the outcome.
Given that the outcome was nowhere near what he had hoped for, GAHS fifth-year coach Alex Penrod was, in fact, impressed with the amount of heart that his entire squad showed in battling through 2-plus hours of adversity.
“When it comes to playoff games, there are ups and downs … and you hope to kind of weather that storm of momentum as the game progresses. We just eventually didn’t have much luck in staying healthy tonight … and it caught up with us,” Penrod said. “I will say that our kids bought into the plan Monday and that this was a game that we could win. Each and every one of them fought through all four quarters tonight, and I think that is a testament to their character and their pride.
“We’ve battled injuries and having under 30 kids all year long, and it really showed itself and worked against us tonight. But, the kids kept taking to the coaching as we just kept plugging people in … and they just fought their tails off tonight. There is a lot to be said about these kids and how they finished what they started.”
The Blue Devils — who were outgained 123-6 in total yards during the first half — struck first with four minutes left in the opening quarter as a handoff to ArMoni McCrae resulted in a fumble that was eventually recovered by Heath in its own endzone, making it a 2-0 contest.
The Bulldogs held on the ensuing GAHS drive, then orchestrated a 6-play, 60-yard drive that was aided by a 42-yard pass from Brayden Bayless to Riley Gould — setting up a first-and-goal at the seven.
McCrae scored on the next snap and Angelo Barcelona added the first of three successful PAT boots, making it a 7-2 contest with 3.5 seconds left in the first stanza.
Isaac Clary recovered a fumble on Heath’s first drive of the second quarter, but the hosts answered with an 8-play, 52-yard drive on their next possession.
McCrae capped the drive with an 11-yard scamper with 3:23 left in the half for a 14-2 advantage.
The Orange and Brown defense held on a fourth-and-1 at their own 45 on the second drive of the second half, then needed only four plays to cover 55 yards as Conner Toomey hauled in a 39-yard touchdown pass from Brayden Bayless at the 6:34 mark for a 21-2 cushion.
Gallia Academy followed with a 12-play drive that ended with a failed fourth down conversion attempt with 29 seconds left in the canto.
Heath ran the final play of the third frame, which ended up as a 40-yard run by McCrae — setting up a first-and-goal at the GAHS eight as both teams headed into the finale.
Heath ended up going backwards and failed to convert a fourth-and-goal at the 14, allowing the Blue Devils to remain within striking distance.
The Blue and White offense stalled and was forced to punt, but Paolo Jones recovered a fumble on the ensuing return. Both teams traded punts and then Gallia Academy had to punt again, and Jones again recovered a fumble on the return with 1:07 left in regulation.
Heath claimed a 13-6 advantage in first downs and outgained the guests by a sizable 295-52 overall margin in total yards of offense, including a 156-12 edge through the air.
GAHS finished the game plus-3 in turnover differential, but also managed only 40 rushing yards on 44 attempts.
In a way, Penrod felt that this evening full of adversity had some similarity to the 2021 campaign in general.
“The year was a roller-coaster from start to finish. We play three weeks and then we miss three weeks (due to COVID), then come back and play a really important game with Coal Grove down to the wire,” Penrod said. “That was the one that if we would have had a little momentum coming in instead of almost a month away from the field, it might have made a difference in the outcome that night and in where we were seeded tonight. It’s just been a different kind of football season, no doubt.”
Penrod was also very complimentary of his seniors, who have amassed a 28-10 mark en route to four consecutive playoff appearances.
“This is a 4-year group of playoff qualifiers, so that is what these seniors mean to this program,” Penrod said. “These guys have put in a lot of work over the years and they have been instrumental in building what we’ve done here the last four years. There aren’t too many classes that go out as 4-time playoff qualifiers, so they should definitely hold their heads high.”
Hunter Shamblin led the GAHS rushing attack with 44 yards on 15 carries, followed by Hudson Shamblin with 13 yards on 13 totes.
Brody Fellure completed 3-of-6 passes for 12 yards. Ashton Janey led the Blue Devils with one catch for 12 yards, while Kenyon Franklin added one grab for four yards.
McCrae paced HHS with 81 rushing yards on 15 carries, whiel Gould added two tries for 43 yards. Bayless completed 9-of-22 passes for 156 yards, with Gould leading the wideouts with four receptions for 64 yards.
The Bulldogs will face fifth-seeded Gnadenhutten Indian Valley in the next round of the D-4 Region 15 playoffs. Indian Valley defeated Philo by a 30-12 count on Friday night as well.
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Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.