PDT Sports Writer
NELSONVILLE — If there were two things the No. 1 Valley football team was not known for during the 2012 season, it was being down by more than a score and behind on the turnover margin.
But in Saturday night’s Division V, Region 19 Championship at Nelsonville-York’s Boston Field, the Indians experienced both. For the second-straight year, coach Darren Crabtree and his Valley Indians had their bid for a perfect season ended in the regional finals, this time to the hands of No. 6 Baltimore Liberty Union in a 26-14 decision.
“We couldn’t overcome ourselves tonight,” Crabtree said. “We talked last week, we won the turnover battle and tonight we didn’t.
“A couple of costly turnovers in the first half that gave them a two-touchdown lead at halftime. It wasn’t a lack of effort, our kids played extremely hard again and you’ve got to give Liberty Union credit, their kids came and gave a great effort.”
It’s the second time the Lions have made it to the state semifinals. In 2008, coach Dan Johnson took Liberty Union to the Final Four.
“We lined up and they’re all two inches taller than us and real stout-looking kids,” Johnson said of the opposing line his team went up against. “But we took it to them.”
Valley (12-1) used some strategy in the opening kickoff, going for the onside kick. The Lions (11-2) recovered at midfield.
“Last week, they started every drive inside the 50,” Crabtree said. “We said let’s give ourselves at least a chance to recover it.”
Five plays later, Liberty Union drew first blood when quarterback Austin Vannatta connected with Tyler Magley for a 25-yard touchdown pass. For the third-straight playoff game, the Indians would get the ball, already playing from behind.
“It was amazing to watch us come out and take the ball down and score like that (on the first drive),” Johnson said.
Unlike last week, the Valley offense came out of the chute, chewing up major yards on the ground. Their opening drive was capped off by Will Howard’s 33-yard run.
“They blitzed a lot,” Howard said. “Our offensive line still did a great job of positioning people. There’s a lot of cut back lanes where they were trying to over-pursue too much.”
After each team traded punts, the Lions took the lead for good when Jacob Basso’s 2-yard sprint to the pylon capped off a four-play, 71-yard drive. Chase Runyon missed the extra point, making it a 13-7 affair.
In the Indians’ responding series, they marched 46 yards and faced a 4th-and-1 from the Liberty Union 19. Brandon Jordan’s dive was stopped for a loss and ended nearly a five-and-a-half minute drive that spanned into the second quarter.
“Their blitzing caused us some problems,” Crabtree said. “We got beat up front a little bit with their gashing defense.”
Despite holding the Lions to a punt, Valley’s next drive would be the first three-straight possessions in which the Indians turned it over. In the third play, Matt Rawlins lost the football and Mitchell Kauffman appeared to jump on the pigskin.
When Valley received the ball again after another Liberty Union punt, the march ended on its sixth play when Howard’s pass towards the end zone was intercepted by Magley. The Indians did catch a break on the next play when Basso, who had fewer than five fumbles all season, put the ball on the turf, which led to Dakota Baker recovering it at the Lion 14.
“He put the ball on the ground and gave us a great chance to take the lead going into the half,” Crabtree said.
But after Howard took a sack to start the next drive, a quarterback sweep towards the Valley bench went awry when Howard lost the ball and it was picked up by Greg Underwood. The senior linebacker returned it down the Indian sideline 80 yards and Liberty Union was up 20-7 with 36 seconds left in the half.
“That was a big play in the ball game because it looks like we have a chance to score and take the lead at half,” Crabtree said. “Instead, we go down two scores. Not only was it a big momentum (swing) for them, it was difficult to stand there and watch the kid go.”
It was the largest hole the Valley faced all year. Lineman J.J. Hettinger admitted it was an odd feeling being down by that much at that point in the game.
“We came in at halftime and tried readjusting,” Hettinger said. “It started to work but we just started falling apart after the turnovers.”
The Indians started the second half with possession but were held to a three-and-out. They had a chance to force the Lions to punt on its opening possession of the third but a roughing the punter penalty kept the Lions offense on the field. Fortunately, Runyon’s 35-yard field goal sailed wide left.
Valley committed its fourth and final giveaway of the night on the next drive. This time, Howard was picked off at the Liberty Union 6-yard-line by Adam Snyder with less than a minute left in the third.
The Indians did make it a 20-14 ball game with 6:15 to go thanks to Howard’s 18-yard scramble. But Basso, who finished with 118 yards on the ground on 26 carries to lead all rushers, sank Valley’s chances with 3:54 to go when he scored on a 10-yard scamper.
“They do what good teams do, they came back and punched one in on us,” Crabtree said.
Crabtree was impressed by the junior running back.
“He’s as good as they claimed him to be,” Crabtree said. “He’s a very hard runner, elusive, has a great cut back and great vision and he made plays for them tonight.”
Howard finished his high school career with 110 yards on the ground and 111 in the air but with two interceptions and a lost fumble.
For nine Indian seniors, finishing their four years with a total record of 29-7 with back-to-back perfect regular seasons that turned into SOC II titles and regional final appearances, they proved a lot of doubters outside of the program wrong.
Cody Leist can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 294, or email@example.com.
Liberty Union 13 7 0 6 — 26
Valley 7 0 0 7 — 14
LU — Magley 25 pass from Vannatta (Runyon kick) 9:55
V — Howard 33 run (Romanello kick) 7:45
LU — Basso 2 run (kick failed) 2:57
LU — Underwood 80 fumble recovery (Runyon kick) :36.0
V — Howard 18 run (Romanello kick) 6:16
LU — Basso 10 run (kick failed) 3:54
First Downs 12 19
Rush Att.-Yds. 35-164 41-222
Pass Att.-Comp.-Int. 11-8-0 21-9-2
Passing Yds. 117 111
Total Yds. 281 333
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 2-2
Turnovers 1 4
Penalties-Yds. 3-25 3-25
Punts-Avg. 4-30.8 2 37.5
RUSHING: Liberty Union — Basso 26-118, Vannatta 8-26, Snyder 1-5; Valley — Howard 15-110, Arnett 1668, Bra. Jordan 7-29, Rawlins 3-16.
PASSING: Liberty Union — Vannatta 11-8-0 117; Howard 21-9-2 111.
RECEVING: Liberty Union — Shirley 3-27 Magley 2-27, Snyder 1-15, Howes 1-12.
RECORDS: Liberty Union 11-2; Valley 12-1.