COLUMBUS — Fredericktown High School’s football team has been to a regional final three of the past four years. On Saturday, for the first time, there was cause to celebrate afterward.
The Freddies overcame an early score by Oak Hill and a barrage of penalties to win a slugfest, 28-21, at Hamilton Township Stadium and earn the Region 19 championship.
The best players stepped up when they were needed the most.
As Oak Hill scored a game-tying touchdown with 6:58 left to play, sophomore running back Matt Smith, who had uncharacteristically been held in check throughout the game, turned to head coach Brian Baum and said, “Give me the ball, coach, and I’ll score.”
The next play from scrimmage, they gave Smith the ball. The result was a 59-yard run and the game-winning touchdown.
It was Smith’s third touchdown of the game.
“Steven (Wagner) led off the block, and I just followed. When I saw the safeties had over-pursued, I cut off across the field,” Smith said.
It was the blocking of all 10 Freddies on the field that led to the touchdown. Smith ran an off-tackle to the right, got near the sideline at the first down marker, then cut back inside. At that point, there was nothing but open field, due to great blocking downfield.
“All week long, we’ve had excellent workouts. They brought all that out to the field. It was a matter of wanting it more, and they wanted it more than the other team,” Baum said.
The fans wanted it, too. The Fredericktown crowd was loud throughout, waving towels and clanging cowbells. The real noise started in the second quarter, when Oak Hill fans booed the Freddies when Oaks’ tailback Westin Hale went down with an injury to the leg. Oak Hill head coach Greg Phillips protested, believing there was a clip. The Fredericktown fans responded with an outpouring of support the team hadn’t heard all season, and it fired the team up for the rest of the game.
Throughout the second half, the Freddies continued to drum up support from the crowd, frequently turning toward their supporters and waving towels, helmets, their own arms — anything to keep the crowd on their feet.
The atmosphere was so exciting, the biggest battle scars came as a result of celebrating. After the game, Austin Hoeflich was seen showing his family and friends something he’ll always have as a memento — a chipped front tooth.
“(It was) my buddy,” Hoeflich said, gesturing toward quarterback Tyler Hathaway.
What ultimately decided this game were the mistakes. Oak Hill had only two penalties, but both were costly. The first was a facemask call on third-and-long that allowed Fredericktown (13-0) to continue their opening drive -- a drive that ultimately ended in a touchdown. The other was a holding call that forced the Oaks to throw deep. That throw resulted in one of three Nathan Cubbage interceptions.
Fredericktown had its own share of mistakes. Six times the team was called for either encroachment or false starts.
“That was all nerves. When it happens on a stage like this, it’s nerves. Those are silly penalties we have to talk about,” Baum said.
Baum also said the team never felt down throughout the game.
“We are a senior dominated team. (The seniors) were very composed. They understood that when the other team scores, we have to score. We have to keep that upper hand,” Baum said.
Oak Hill (11-2) struck the first blow, when quarterback Jesse Slone came out throwing. A quick slant to tight end Daniel Woods turned into a 45-yard gain. Slone himself finished the drive with a quarterback sneak for an early 7-0 lead.
The first time Fredericktown touched the ball, the Oaks were ready to shut down the run. Smith and Hoeflich were stopped at the line on several carries. Only the penalty for grabbing Hathaway’s facemask kept the drive alive.
“Turnovers and penalties win and lose football games. Bend, but don’t break. That’s our philosophy, and that’s how we win,” Baum said.
Two plays later, Hathaway scrambled out of the pocket and sailed 41 yards for the tying score.
When Oak Hill got the ball back, they again moved the ball through the air, marching inside the Fredericktown 10 yard line. But Slone’s fade away throw to wide receiver Joey Maynard was picked off by Cubbage in the back of the end zone.
The next Oak Hill drive was the same. Slone found Maynard and flanker Jesse Parker to convert multiple third down opportunities. But an attempt to stretch the defense out on a deep throw was intercepted by Cubbage again.
Fredericktown, who ate up most of the clock in the first half, never gave up on the running game. Hoeflich found the few holes the line was able to open, but Oaks were able to gang up on him. Smith was held to only 31 yards in the first half.
Late in the second quarter, the Freddies finally did manage to get some gains on the ground. Hoeflich put the team near scoring position, but a holding call and a false start put Fredericktown too far back and they ran out of time.
At the start of the second half, Fredericktown opened up the playbook. Tony Lybarger caught a 30-yard pass. On the next play, Smith scored his first touchdown on a 31-yard carry.
Oak Hill attempted to respond with a long throw of its own, but Brandon Helmick stepped in front of the Slone pass for his third pick of the postseason.
A personal foul call ended Fredericktown’s subsequent drive, and allowed the Oaks to get good field position to set up for their game-tying score, a 7-yard scamper to the pylon by Hale.
“(At that time) I told them to hold on, to step back. 14-14, and we have the ball in the championship game. What kid doesn’t dream of that?” Baum said.
In the final quarter — what could have been the final quarter of their season — Fredericktown went back to their bread and butter. After decent gains on the ground by Hoeflich, Smith finished the drive with a 3-yard score, fighting with defenders the whole way.
Oak Hill went back to what it did best. Throwing several inside slants, Slone eventually found Parker who ran from the 33-yard line to the end zone with 6:58 to play, tying the score, 21-21.
That’s when Smith’s last touchdown happened.
As for the Oaks, they marched down the field again. But when they got inside the 40, Slone thought he found Maynard wide open inside the 20. But Cubbage came from nowhere, stepped in front of Maynard, and pick off his third pass of the night with 2:11 to play.
As Fredericktown lined up in victory formation on the last play, the players showed more emotion than they had all season. It was like four years of frustration and anguish had turned into elation and joy.
Following the game, even Baum couldn’t hold back a smile as he addressed his team on the field.
“We’ve accomplished another one of our goals,” Baum told them. “Now we have two more games to go.”
As the Freddies left the field, they received word that Coldwater had defeated previously unbeaten West Jefferson, 44-12, in the Region 20 final. The Coldwater Cavaliers (10-3) will meet Fredericktown Saturday at 7 p.m. at St. Francis DeSales Alumni Stadium in Columbus.
This is uncharted territory for Fredericktown. But if they were content with what they’ve accomplished to this point, it didn’t show as the team left the stadium.
“It’ll be business as usual. We’ll start on Monday. . . crank it up on Thursday and Friday. Saturday we’ll play,” Baum said.
“We’ll be ready,” Hathaway promised with a smile.