MANSFIELD Woosh. That was momentum being sucked out of the Massillon sideline Saturday night at Arlin Field.
It was a recipe for disaster; a runaway train with no end in sight.
And to think for the first minute of the game Massillon head coach Jason Hall could not have scripted a better start.
Two plays ... and a 54-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Kempt to Gareon Conley. Massillon took a 7-0 lead with 11:11 left in the first quarter.
It was a false wall of hope.
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It all came crashing down on the Tigers before halftime. Before the end of the first quarter, really.
Stark County is out of the playoffs ... again.
Toledo Whitmer came back, fighting mad. The Panthers didn’t stop swinging until they buried the Tigers 49-16 in a Division I regional championship game.
“I think at all levels of football momentum is huge,” Hall said.
“They did a great job of having a balanced attack and they kept (momentum) on their side.”
Massillon’s defense forced a punt of the Panthers’ first series. Marcus Whitfield made the kind of mistake in a playoff game that can’t be made. The junior fielded the punt and tried to do so inside his own 10-yard line.
Whitfield never fielded it cleanly. He muffed the punt in his own end zone. Whitmer recovered and tied the game at 7.
Then on the very next play, the Panthers recovered an onside kick.
Two plays later, Whitmer led 14-7.
That 7-0 Massillon lead evaporated into the thin, crisp night air just like the fog breath coming out of the players’ mouths.
Whitmer head coach Jerry Bell said he walked into Arlin Field with an onside kick in his pocket. He didn’t know exactly when he would use it.
Could he have picked a better time?
“At some point I was going to do it,” Bell said. “That was the best point for the momentum. It was there to take.”
Momentum wasn’t the only thing that rolled Massillon.
Whitmer ran through Massillon’s defense all night. The Panthers ran it 51 times out of 68 plays for 272 yards.
“We didn’t stop the run and I don’t care what level of football — from Pop Warner to the NFL — if you can run the ball, you’re gonna win some games,” Hall said. “The coaching staff could’ve done a better job adapting and adjusting, and we adjusted a little too late. That starts with me. We didn’t handle adversity very well, and that’s on my shoulders.”
It wasn’t until Whitmer scored 28 points that the Tigers walked an eighth man in the box to stop Whitmer’s running game that left tracks on the front of Massillon’s jerseys.
Right before halftime, Whitmer tacked on another score.
It was 35-10.
Momentum in playoff football is bigger than the best player on either team. Momentum is everything in the postseason. Massillon had it, lost it and after that it was like trying to gather liquid mercury.
It was 35-10 at halftime. Massillon’s faithful, which outnumbered Toledo fans by a more than a 2-to-1 margin, sat stunned.
Hall’s halftime message was simple. He has been telling his team since August at some point in time they would have to come from behind to win a game.
Hall probably didn’t have this far behind in mind.
In the third quarter, Massillon’s defense forced a punt. The Tigers needed a quick score, and couldn’t find it. Then, Whitmer went on a time-devouring 15-play, 80-yard drive that ate almost eight minutes off the clock. Massillon’s second possession in the second half came in the fourth quarter, down 42-10.
“They’re a phenomenal, very explosive team,” Bell said. “We neutralized them. The (muffed) punt was huge. It was a big swing in momentum and then to get the onside kick and go up 14-7. ...”
Bell’s voice trailed off.
On the other side of the 50 was the duality of wins and losses.
Whitmer’s players laughed and hugged. They celebrated a championship.
On Massillon’s side, the lopsided loss was numbing. Tiger players hugged each other, tears running down teammates’ shoulder pads.
Their goal was 15 weeks to a state championship. It fell two weeks shy.
“It’s a good life lesson,” Hall said. “In life you can’t always reach your goals. That’s part of the deal when you set them, but that doesn’t mean you don’t set your goals high.”
Hall took a deep breath and headed for the locker room.