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Tigers’ final four hopes get ripped away

 Mechanicsburg rallies to beat WL-Salem in double overtime

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West Liberty-Salem’s David Branham reacts after Friday’s loss in the Division VI regional championship game to Mechanicsburg during a postgame meeting at Harmon Field in Wapakoneta. The Indians defeated the Tigers 34-28 in double overtime to advance to the state semifinals. (EXAMINER PHOTOS | TONY BARRETT)

WAPAKONETA — Little went wrong for West Liberty-Salem here for the first 3 1/2 quarters Friday night. The final six minutes of regulation turned into a nightmare for the Tigers, though.

WL-Salem led its Division VI regional championship football game against Mechanicsburg 21-6 midway through the final period before an improbable Indians’ comeback forced the game into overtime.

The Indians eventually pulled out a 34-28 double OT victory to stun WL-Salem at Harmon Field.

“I have no idea about the details of what happened other than our kids continued to fight for each other and trust in each other,” said a jubilant Mechanicsburg head coach Kurt Forrest. “They refused to quit.”

After each team scored in the first overtime to force a second extra session, the Tigers were stopped on a fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line.

The Indians then capitalized on their chance with the ball, driving to the 4-yard line. Freshman quarterback Kaleb Romero capped a gutsy individual performance with a 4-yard keeper for the game-winning touchdown.

“They did a nice job of making big plays when they needed to down the stretch,” said WL-Salem head coach Dan McGill.

WL-Salem bottled up the Indians’ vaunted ground game, limiting 2,000-yard rusher Aeryton Erwin to just 67 yards on 24 carries.

But the Tigers were burned by the arm of Romero, who piled up 257 yards and three touchdowns.

“I have said all year that Kaleb Romero is a flat out competitor,” said Forrest. “He simply does not know the definition of the word lose. He works as hard as any kid I’ve ever seen.”

The combination of Romero and M’burg receiver Brandon Purk gave the Tigers’ defense fits.

Purk hauled in nine catches for 187 yards and a pair of TDs.

The Indians desperately needed the big plays from Romero and Purk after the Tigers built a 15-point lead.

A 57-yard Taylor Cordell touchdown run put the Tigers up 7-0 with 4:27 left in the opening quarter.

The Tigers pushed their lead to 14-0 on a 9-yard Ben Burden TD run at the 10:37 mark of the second quarter.

Mechanicsburg got on the scoreboard for the first time with 4:14 left until halftime on a 34-yard TD strike from Romero to Tim Rader. The extra-point kick failed as the Tigers eventually took a 14-6 lead into the halftime break.

The momentum swung back and forth rapidly at the start of the second half. On the Tigers’ first offensive series, they were forced to punt.

Mechanicsburg blocked the punt and took over on the Tigers’ 28-yard line. The Indians marched to the 4-yard line.

However, the Tigers’ defense dug in. WL-Salem refused to let the Indians get into the end zone on four straight running plays to preserve the eight-point lead.

WL-Salem looked to have the game in hand when quarterback Landon Williams, who took over for an injured Brandon Upton, scored on a 3-yard run with two seconds remaining in the third quarter for a 21-6 lead.

Then the Indians came up with some late-game magic to suddenly turn the tide.

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West Liberty-Salem’s Ben Burden makes his way into the end zone for a touchdown against Mechanicsburg during the second quarter of their regional championship game.

In an obvious passing situation, Romero and Purk combined for one big play after another over the final six minutes.

Romero finished off a 10-play, 75-yard Mechanicsburg drive with a 19-yard scoring toss to Purk with 5:26 left in the game. Purk’s extra-point kick pulled the Indians to within eight points at 21-13.

The Tigers were then forced into a 3-and-out, but a Mechanicsburg player made contact with WL-Salem punter Taylor Cordell on the ensuing punt attempt and roughing the punter was called.

That gave WL-Salem a first down with 3:06 left in the game.

Mechanicsburg’s defense came up with another big stand, forcing the Tigers to punt with 1:39 remaining on the clock.

Following the punt, the Indians found themselves on their own 28-yard line with 1:29 left to go.

Mechanicsburg did not need much time to get into touchdown range.

On the first play of their ensuing Indians’ drive, Romero launched a deep pass toward Purk, who caught the ball in stride and raced to the Tigers’ 9-yard line.

A 7-yard pass from Romero to Purk gave the Indians a second-and-goal at the 2-yard line.

Erwin then barreled into the end zone on a 2-yard TD run to make the score 21-19 with 23 seconds remaining in regulation.

Needing to go for two points to tie the game, Romero threw a dart to Tim Rader for a successful conversion pass that knotted the score.

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West Liberty-Salem’s Landon Williams holds up the football after scoring a touchdown in a Division VI regional championship game.

The Tigers moved the ball to their 45-yard line in the final seconds of regulation, but a long pass as time expired fell incomplete to bring on overtime.

WL-Salem won the coin toss for the first overtime and went on defense.

Romero and his offense didn’t miss a beat. On the first play of overtime, Romero threw a perfect pass to Purk in the corner of the end zone for a 20-yard TD. Purk’s extra-point kick gave the Indians a 28-21 lead.

“Hats off to West Liberty for stopping the run the way they did,” said Forrest. “We knew they liked to play on a lot of man-to-man coverage in the secondary, and if you play man-to-man coverage on Brandon Purk, you are asking for trouble.”

Not to be outdone, the Tigers also only needed one play to find the end zone in the first overtime. Williams found a big hole on a keeper and sprinted 20 yards for a touchdown. Gabe Lawson then booted the extra-point kick to tie the score at 28-28, and force another overtime period.

The Tigers had the ball first in the second overtime and used two running plays to get inside the Indians’ 10-yard line.

WL-Salem eventually faced a third-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Ben Burden picked up one yard on a rush to bring up a fourth-and-one.

The Tigers were then stuffed on a running play, allowing the Indians the chance to win the game with a score on their possession.

Romero rushed for a four-yard gain on the first play of the Indians’ second-overtime possession.

After a run by Erwin went for no yards, Romero took off and wiggled his way down to the Tigers’ 4-yard line.

Erwin was stopped for no gain on first down, but Romero followed with his 4-yard winning TD rush into the teeth of the Tigers’ defense.

The Tigers saw their campaign end with a 10-3 record.

“Our guys played hard each and every week,” said McGill. “They are a resilient group of young men. Hats off to our seniors. They made my first season a true joy.”

Mechanicsburg finished with 364 yards of offense, while the Tigers had 292 yards. All but three of those yards came on the ground. WL-Salem threw the ball only twice.

Cordell rushed for 116 yards on 17 carries. Williams had 86 rushing yards on 18 carries and Trevor Anderson added 55 yards on 10 rushes.

Kam Evans recorded an interception and Kyle Wilkins made 11 tackles to lead the Tigers’ defense.

The Indians (11-2) advance to play Wayne Trace (12-1) in the state semifinals Friday at a site to be determined.

  M’BURG 35, WL-SALEM 28, 2 OT

Tigers    7    7    7    0    7    0    –    28

Indians    0    60    15    7    6    –    34

TEAM STATISTICS    WL    MB

First downs    14    12

Total net yards    292    364

Rushes/yards    52/289    37/107

Passing    3    257

Comp-att-int    1-2-0    12-21-1

Punts/avg    6/30.6    5/26

Fumbles-lost    0-0    1-0

Penalties-yards    4-25    7-67

 

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