RACINE, Ohio — A rivalry rout and a return to the postseason.
The Eastern football secured its third playoff appearance in school history and its first since 2001 on Saturday at Roger Lee Adams Memorial Field, as the Eagles rolled to a 63-6 victory over rival Southern in Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division action.
Eastern (8-2, 6-2 TVC Hocking) — winning in Racine for the first time since 2011 — scored on just the second play from scrimmage, with a 55-yard touchdown run by junior Blake Newland, his first of four trips to the end zone. Mason Dishong made his first of six consecutive extra-point kicks to give EHS a 7-0 lead 47 seconds into play.
Southern (5-5, 4-4) turned the ball over on its first possession of the game, with EHS junior Steve Fitzgerald picking off a pass and returning it to the Tornado 38. Five plays later, Eastern was ahead 14-0 on a nine-yard touchdown run by Blake Newland at the 7:47 mark of the first quarter.
The Tornadoes made it as far as the Eagle 13 on the ensuing drive, but were backed up 19 yards by a penalty and a sack, giving the ball back to Eastern at the 32.
Eastern covered the 68 yards in seven consecutive run plays, and the Eagles were ahead 21-0 with 27 seconds left in the first, with Fitzgerald finding the end zone for the first of four times on a four-yard run.
After forcing a three-and-out, Eastern went 34 yards in five plays, and stretched its edge to 28-0 with a three-yard scoring run by Fitzgerald with 7:06 left in the half.
A second straight three-and-out by the Eagle defense gave the guests possession at their own 44. Five plays later, Eastern settled for a 32-yard field goal by Dishong, making the margin 31-0 with 6:31 left in the half.
EHS sophomore Brayden Smith intercepted an SHS pass at the Eagle 41 on the hosts’ next drive. Eastern converted a pair of third down tries before Blake Newland broke a 19-yard touchdown run, giving EHS a 38-0 lead with 1:04 until halftime.
Southern picked up a trio of first downs before senior Gage Shuler tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to classmate Gage Barrett, ending the shut out bid with 10 seconds left in the half.
After stopping the two-point conversion try, Eastern recovered an on-side kick attempt at the SHS 49. A screen pass from Conner Ridenour to Blake Newland on the next play gave EHS a 45-6 halftime edge.
The Eagles went up 51-6 5:21 into the second half, with Fitzgerald scoring on a 19-yard run. The EHS defense forced its second straight three-and-out in the third quarter, and then Fitzgerald found paydirt on a 25-yard run with 1:40 left in the third, giving EHS a 57-6 lead.
Southern fumbled the ball away three plays into the fourth quarter, and Eastern went 73 yards in six plays, with Colton Combs scoring the game’s final touchdown on a four-yard run.
In the 63-6 win, Eastern claimed a 531-to-137 advantage in total offense, including a 468-to-50 clip on the ground. The Eagles earned a 24-to-8 edge in first downs and won the turnover battle by a 3-0 tally. EHS was penalized four times for 45 yards, while SHS was sent back three times for 30 yards.
Blake Newland finished with a 196 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries, to go with one 49-yard touchdown reception. Fitzgerald toted the ball 21 times for 177 yards and four scores, Combs had 73 yards and a touchdown on five carries, while Ryan Ross ran three times for a total of 25 yards.
Ridenour was 3-of-5 passing for 63 yards in the win, with Dishong catching a team-best two passes for 14 yards.
For the Purple and Gold, Shuler completed 6-of-14 pass attempts 61 yards, Barrett completed 1-of-2 tries for 27 yards, and Andy Doczi completed 1-of-2 attempts for minus-1 yard.
Barrett caught a game-best three passes for 16 yards, Chase Bailey had two catches for 37 yards, while Shuler, Will Wickline and Jonah Diddle caught a pass apiece for 27, eight, and minus-1 respectively.
Trey McNickle led the hosts on the ground with 45 yards on three carries, followed by Josh Tanksley with 13 yards on four totes, and Diddle with six yards on two tries.
Following the 57-point win, sixth-year EHS head coach Pat Newland talked about the team’s mentality coming into this ‘win and you’re in’ game.
“These young men, they’ve really been practicing well,” Coach Newland said. “On Thursday we were going to practice inside, but it stopped raining, and I told them ‘we have to work on double-teams and kick-out blocks, we have to go outside’, and they agreed, ‘yeah we do’, and they snapped right to it. That’s the way these guys have been all year, and I think we’re peaking at the right time.
“I can’t say enough about these guys, there’s no complaining or anything like that. They want the team to do well, they don’t care who gets the carries. Steve (Fitzgerald) made it over 1,000 all-purpose yards for the season tonight, and the offensive line was just so happy, the whole team was elated. This is a team, you know, not a group of individuals, this is a team.”
Coach Newland also noted that the stepping stones to get back to the postseason were laid by the players who’ve come through the program.
“It’s been a grind, it’s been a lot of work,” Newland said. “All the past players that didn’t get this, they built the foundation for this. These guys are a team, and I think that started about six years ago with those guys. We’ve been a team, the players have played together for all those years, and to see it finally come through for these boys to get to the playoffs, I’m so happy for them. I’m about ready to cry right now I’m so happy for them.”
For Southern, head coach Cassady Willford noted that he will miss his departing seniors, but is hopeful that new leaders will emerge this offseason.
“They’re a great group of young men,” Willford said of his senior class. “Moving forward I hope they can take some of the life lessons that were learned from our coaching staff and from this game, and really apply them and use them in their everyday life. Hard work, being respectful, and really doing the little things in life, hopefully they realize how important those things are. They are a great group of kids and I’m excited to watch them on the hardwood this winter, and on the baseball diamond this spring.
“We’re going to move forward with the program, and hopefully these young guys step up and have a good offseason. They need to have their own identity and kind of let the past roll. We need leadership, it’s something we’re lacking right now. We need young guys to step up and really lead us this offseason in the weight room, lead us moving into next season and lead us moving forward. A huge thing for us is leadership, and we really need that right now.”
The Eagles’ official postseason destination will be announced by the OHSAA on Sunday.
Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.