SULLIVAN TWP. — The gifts came complete with bows on top, and Black River’s season came to an end because of them.
The result was a 51-42 loss to fifth-seeded Fairless in a Division V, Region 15 quarterfinal at a packed and rowdy Art Stevenson Field.
The points that doomed the fourth-seeded Pirates (7-4) came on two kickoff returns for touchdowns and another TD that was set up by a fumble on their own 2-yard line.
Against an opponent that had never won a playoff game and featured Stark County all-time leading passer Hunter Wells, it was a recipe for disaster.
Fairless (8-3) advances to face Principals Athletic Conference rival Manchester (9-2) next week.
“I’m sure we’d all love to be playing still now, but that’s a good team,” said Black River running back Andrew Vaughn, who had 240 yards from scrimmage and 30 points. “I mean, if we could lose to anybody — and I hate to say it — that’s a good team to lose to.”
Black River did many things right in a showdown between old Black River High School teammates — the Pirates’ Al Young and the Falcons’ Don Wilson — by racking up 498 yards of total offense.
It also did more than enough wrong in critical times, and special teams were at the forefront.
The Pirates hadn’t allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown since Oct. 14, 2011, yet saw Fairless’ Jeremy Mahaffey and Carter Casperd go the distance. Casperd’s rumble in particular was demoralizing, as it made the score 37-26 with 34 seconds left in the third quarter.
Black River’s Cody Bartolic also clanged two extra points off the left upright, and Brock Waltz’s roughing the punter penalty set up a Falcons field goal in the second quarter.
Those miscues accounted for a 19-point swing.
“It shocked me a little bit,” Pirates coach Al Young said. “The second (kickoff return) was a killer.
“I wanted to nickel-and-dime them down the field and I’m thinking, ‘This was perfect. This was working out how we wanted,’ and they turn around and go ‘bang,’ and I’m saying, ‘Are you kidding me?”‘
Adding to the misery was a wild 11-second sequence late in the third quarter.
With Wells (16-for-28, 285 yards, two TDs) finally finding his bearings after a pedestrian first half, Fairless marched to the Black River 3 up 24-20. Running back Jeremy Mahaffey (106 yards from scrimmage, three TDs) then fumbled away the ball to Ryan Slone for what appeared to be a potentially game-changing moment.
Instead, the Pirates’ Colin Filak gave the ball back on the next snap and Mahaffey answered with a TD.
“It wasn’t anything dramatic, either,” Young said. “It was a simple handoff, and we’ve done it a million times this year.”
The Pirates still had a few opportunities to make things interesting. Waltz (career-high 187 passing yards, three total TDs) rushed for a 9-yard score to make it 37-34 with 10:02 left, but Wells went 4-for-4 for 94 yards during a 14-0 Fairless run that put the night on ice.
“We had a couple breakdowns that ultimately have been what we’re doing all year,” Young said. “That hurt us.”
Black River completely controlled the early going, yet led only 14-7 following Waltz’s first rushing score because of Mahaffey’s kickoff return.
At that point, the Pirates had the ball for 7:34. It ran 18 plays and complied 132 yards before Fairless took its first snap from scrimmage.
Due in large part to disguising its zone coverages, Black River also frazzled Wells a bit early. The smooth-slinging Youngstown State recruit was just 7-for-17 for 93 yards in the first half — and those numbers were inflated by a 54-yard touchdown pass to Zack Kelly — and would have been intercepted three times if not for drops by Black River’s Aaron Schmitz, Sean Holly and Vaughn.
Despite Wells’ struggles, Fairless led 17-14 at halftime thanks to Mahaffey’s kickoff return, the Wells-Kelly 54-yard screen and a 40-yard field goal by strong-legged Matt Bair that followed the roughing the punter penalty.
“Our defense was playing at a very high level for the first half,” Young said. “I was very confident at halftime.”
Even so, Fairless wasted no time in extending the lead to open the second half, as it needed just five plays and 1:53 to cover 60 yards. A 36-yard play-action pass from Wells to Austin Weyandt paved the way for a short TD run by Casperd.
Black River responded with a 59-yard TD strike from Waltz to Vaughn, but the two-fumble sequence inside the Pirates’ 5 happened just three minutes later.
Though it was a highly disappointing loss, the Pirates were surprisingly composed. The reasoning: Fairless defeated Manchester in triple overtime one week after the Panthers crushed Black River 52-13.
“That says a lot about how we’ve grown during the season,” Vaughn said. “It was a great team we played. That’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen in my life — he’s definitely going places — but I think we kept them on their toes all night. It was back and forth.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fairless 51, Black River 42
Fairless 7 10 20 14 — 51
Black River 14 0 12 16 — 42
B — Andrew Vaughn, 5 run (kick failed)
F — Jeremy Mahaffey, 77 kickoff return (Matt Bair kick)
B — Brock Waltz, 1 run (Vaughn run)
F — Zack Kelly 54 pass from Hunter Wells (Bair kick)
F — Bair, 40 field goal
B — Vaughn, 59 pass from Waltz (kick failed)
F — Mahaffey, 2 run (run failed)
B — Vaughn, 50 run (run failed)
F — Carter Casperd, 80 kickoff return (Bair kick)
B — Waltz, 9 run (Vaughn run)
F — Mahaffey, 1 run (Bair kick)
F — Austin Weyandt, 20 pass from Wells (Bair kick)
B — Vaughn, 1 run (Vaughn run)
First downs 16 23
— by rush 4 17
— by pass 10 5
— by penalty 2 1
Yards rushing 85 311
Yards passing 285 187
Total yards 370 498
Pass comp./att 16/28 6/10
Intercepted by 1 0
Penalties/yards 4/35 5/37
Fumbles/lost 1/1 2/1
RUSHING — (B) Vaughn 29-143, David Bell 15-85, Colin Filak 18-67, Waltz 7-16. (F) Mahaffey 16-84, Casperd 2-3, Wells 2-(-1), Kelly 1-(-1).
PASSING — (B) Waltz 6-10-187-1-1. (F) Wells 16-28-285-2-0.
RECEIVING — (B) Vaughn 2-97, Nick Sas 2-52, Filak 2-37. (F) Weyandt 3-71, Kelly 2-61, Christian Simmons 4-48, Tuke Olmstead 1-43, Bryant Wickham 4-40, Mahaffey 2-22.