ELYRIA — The message was different during practice for Elyria Catholic and North Ridgeville this week.
“All week we stressed how important this (game) was,” Panthers coach Mike Polevacik said. “We knew the playoffs were on the line and we could punch our own ticket if we won. We stressed that we controlled our own destiny.”
It was simpler for the Rangers, who had been eliminated from postseason contention.
“We were talking about that at practice — we can’t go, they can’t go … just like that,” running back Demario McCall said.
McCall returned the second-half kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, then added a 31-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to help North Ridgeville come away with a 23-15 victory Friday night.
Elyria Catholic (5-4, 3-2 West Shore Conference) got on the scoreboard quickly, as junior running back Justin Rankin swept around the left side for a 50-yard touchdown on the second play of the Panthers’ opening drive.
But the offense stalled for EC and never really got started for the Rangers (5-4, 3-2), and the Panthers held a 7-3 lead at halftime.
“Other than Rankin’s big burst up the sideline for the touchdown, I thought we outplayed them in the first half and we only got a field goal out of it,” Rangers coach Jeff Riesen said. “So to come out and get that (kickoff return by McCall) right away, it got the whole sideline going, our visiting crowd going and it gave us some momentum.”
The Panthers tried to pooch the kickoff down the middle of the field, but McCall scooped up the ball, broke to the right and found a crease.
“I didn’t actually see a hole, so I was thinking about cutting it all the way back,” McCall said. “But then I saw my receiver, he kicked his man out and I rode it up and cut it back and it was a big gain.”
The momentum continued for the Rangers thanks to junior Jonah Bowden.
The fullback had been used several times as a battering ram, pounding his way into the middle of the line for short gains. On the Rangers’ second drive of the third quarter, he ran again up the middle, but this time found his way through the line and into the open field, where he turned on the jets and sprinted 55 yards for the score.
“Jonah really came through. Ironically, I said to him leading into this game, ‘You know Demario has had some big games, (quarterback Jason) Lucas has had some big games … it’d be nice to get our third guy involved.’ He did tonight,” Riesen said. “It was just a little misdirection play. He ran it behind Sam Schultz, one of our big offensive guards, who had a great block, and Willy Hedberg, a tackle on that side. He’s fast. For a big fullback, he ran away from people.”
Bowden then came up big on the other side of the ball. On the Panthers’ ensuing possession, the linebacker chased down quarterback Jeremy Holley on third-and-13 for a 7-yard loss that ended the drive.
“The (EC) linemen were blocking good all night and I just made a move on them,” Bowden said. “I got in there, Holley rolled out to the side and I sacked him — and there’s no better feeling than that.”
Elyria Catholic made things interesting at the end.
Down 23-7 late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers used a 15-yard pass interference penalty against the Rangers, a 39-yard pass from Holley to Connor Hrobat, a 5-yard touchdown run from Rankin and a 2-point conversion run by Jerot Schill to get within a touchdown.
But North Ridgeville recovered the onside kick, earned a first down and then ran out the clock to seal the victory.
It was a huge low for Elyria Catholic after the big high of beating Midview a week earlier.
“We did whatever we could to prevent it. It was (also) Homecoming week at school, so you’re very aware of the possible letdown,” Polevacik said. “Now you’re going to be hoping and praying (next) Friday night, just like last year. So we’ve got to make sure that we take care of business against (Rocky) River, so in case we do get asked to the dance, we have our shoes.”
STAT SLIPUP: While there were no dominating offensive performance on either side, Lucas had the privilege of being the game’s lone 100-yard rusher — Rankin finished with 99 and McCall had 84 — until he gave away the honor on the final play. Lucas took the snap in punt formation on fourth-and-9 with three seconds left, ran backward until time expired and slid to the turf for a 20-yard loss — giving him 92 rushing yards for the game.