By CHRIS EASTERLING
Independent sports editor
SPENCER They arrived more than two hours before their team was to take the field Saturday, hundreds of Fairless fans flocked to the middle of a vast farmland. And they would’ve stayed more than two hours after their team was finished if allowed.
But in between the time Fairless’ fans overran the bleachers at Stevenson Field and the time their cars jammed up the exits outside, their football team took yet another historic step forward in a season full of historic steps by running past Black River 51-42 in a Division V Region 15 quarterfinal.
“It really just shows how close as a team we are,” said Carter Casperd, who scored a pair of touchdowns on the night. “It shows just how well we were able to respond. It was just huge for us. Big plays by big players tonight.”
VIDEO: Fairless-Manchester Preview
The win didn’t just help the Falcons match the most wins in school history at 8-3. It also — and much more importantly — provided the first playoff win in school history.
Now, Fairless will get to play in Week 12 for the first time Saturday at Central Catholic. But waiting for the Falcons will be a team they are quite familiar with, Principals Athletic Conference rival Manchester.
It was the Falcons’ Week 4 49-48 triple-overtime win that officially signaled their arrival as a contender. And that win, the first since 1985 against the PAC kingpins, was one of three streak-snapping victories for Fairless.
“I guess we’re getting Manchester again,” said junior Jeremy Mahaffey, who had three scores on the night.
The third of those streak-snapping victories came Saturday night at Black River. And like that win against Manchester, it required every bit of offense — along with a bit of defense and some nifty special teams — to help the Falcons prevail.
“It took us a while to get going,” said senior quarterback Hunter Wells, who added Stark County’s single-season passing mark to his the career passing record thanks to his 284-yard passing night. “We had a lot of key returns on the special teams. ... That really helped us as an offense.”
Twice in the first quarter, Fairless found itself trailing. The first came after Black River churned out a 10-play scoring drive on the opening possession of the game, taking a 6-0 lead when Andrew Vaughn crashed in from five yards out.
The second came on the Pirates’ second drive, a nine-play march that ended on Brock Waltz’s 1-yard plunge and a two-point conversion by Vaughn, who was held to 148 rushing yards, or 72 yards below his season average. That pushed them in front 14-7.
But the Falcons established the theme of the night in between those two scores. And that theme was, no matter what Black River was going to do, they were going to have an answer.
The first answer was a 77-yard Mahaffey kickoff return for a touchdown to give Fairless a 7-6 lead after it connected on its point-after try. The second was a three-play, game-tying drive that ended with Wells finding Zack Kelly for a 54-yard touchdown to make it 14-14.
“That’s what our offense is based off of,” Mahaffey said. “We always have to get into scoring situations. That’s what we want to do. That’s our goal on offense. If they score, we always have to come back and score again.”
And when Matt Bair booted a 40-yard field goal with 9:51 left in the half, Fairless took the lead for good at 17-14. Not that there wouldn’t be challenges to that lead.
Fairless extended the lead to 24-14 on Carter Casperd’s 3-yard run on the second half’s initial drive. After Black River cut it up 24-20 on a 59-yard Waltz-to-Vaughn pass, followed by an exchange of fumbles inside the Pirate 5, Mahaffey re-established the 10-point cushion with a 3-yard run of his own.
A Vaughn 50-yard touchdown run cut it to 30-26. But Casperd answered with 80-yard kickoff return to make it 37-26.
Waltz later scored on a 9-yard run — plus a two-point conversion — to pull Black River 37-34 with 10:02 remaining. But back-to-back scoring marches ending in Mahaffey’s second rushing touchdown and Wells’ second passing score — to Austin Weyandt — opened up a 51-34 lead.
And from there, it became just a matter of how long Fairless fans would get to stay to celebrate the historic win.
Reach Chris at 330-775-1128
On Twitter: @ceasterlingINDE