Note: This recap appears in the Sunday, Nov. 3 newspaper on Page B1.
Entering the final Friday night of the regular season, the Buckeyes wanted nothing more than wrestle away a share of the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division title from the Bulldogs.
And that’s exactly what Brandon Phillips did.
Phillips, a junior defensive back, ripped the ball free from Athens’ Braeden Halbert with 12 seconds left at the two-yard line to preserve Nelsonville-York’s 35-28 win at Rutter Field on Friday night. The Buckeyes (7-3, 5-1 TVC Ohio) earned a share of the league title and denied Athens (5-5, 5-1 TVC Ohio) a solo championship.
Phillips made the clinching interception on a deep throw down the sideline. He was covering Halbert, and the two players got to the ball at the same time. Phillips wrestled the all away.
In the chaos that followed — Phillips’ attempted return of the pick led to an explosion of penalty flags and lost tempers — a minor scrum broke out with players from both sides clashing. The tally of the play — three penalties on N-Y, and one player ejection, and one penalty on Athens — didn’t affect the outcome. The Buckeyes took a knee on the next snap and celebrated.
“He just snagged it. He just took it right out of his hands,” said N-Y senior Keegan Wilburn about Phillips’ interception.
The Buckeyes collected the Doc Kroner Trophy, the hardware center piece of this long-running rivalry series, posed for pictures and Wilburn even tossed his helmet a good 20 yards afterward with a cathartic roar.
N-Y started the season 0-2, and was outscored by 78 points in the process. The Buckeyes were lost a month ago in a blowout home loss to Wellston.
But here are the Buckeyes now, celebrating ‘more paint on the wall’ with a league title after a three-game winning streak to cap the regular season. Head coach Rusty Richards has a regional championship under his belt with N-Y, and he said Friday’s win was just as sweet.
“I tell you what, this ranks right up there,” Richards said. “A lot of people doubted us. After the Wellston game, everybody gave up on us. But those kids in the locker room didn’t. It’s special.
“I’m about at a loss for words and I like to talk.”
The Buckeyes celebrated with gusto. Even as the game ended they knew their prospects for a postseason bid were slim, and those ended minutes later. The computer point modeling site JoeEitel.com had the Buckeyes as the No. 9 team in Division VI, Region 21 — one spot from the postseason — after Friday’s scores were tabulated. The OHSAA will release the official playoff pairings on Sunday.
But that didn’t matter to Wilburn. The Buckeyes won the day, and a league title, on a night when few gave them a real chance.
“We’re just proud of our guys really, that’s all I can say. I’m kind of shell-shocked,” Wilburn said. “We won the game. That’s all we need to say. That’s all that matters at this point right?”
Athens had clinched its share of the league title the week before. But it didn’t feel like champions after the finale. The Bulldogs knew week 10 was the end of the road for the season, win or loss, but stumbled in a Senior Night that went all kind of wrong in the first half. The loss snapped a string of 11 straight wins in league play.
The Bulldogs made a run of it late, but it wasn’t enough.
“We didn’t play very well. The first half was another one of those we couldn’t get out of our way kind of things,” White said.
“Week 10 is always a weird one. You kind of instantly forget about the loss and start realizing it’s the last night for these seniors,” he continued. “That’s where most of my emotion is at right now. Kids that loved this program and now we’re done.”
Seniors Wilburn and Mikey Seel powered the Buckeyes, and came up with big plays throughout. Seel hit 9 of 18 passes for 172 yards, and added two rushing touchdowns. Wilburn had just one reception for 19 yards, but the do-everything playmaker rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown and had the biggest play of the game.
With N-Y leading 14-7 late in the first half, the Buckeyes got the ball on their own 47-yard line with just 14 seconds before half. Wilburn was at QB in a wildcat formation, but instead of running he threw a dart down the left sideline to a wide open Austin Thrapp. Thrapp gathered the long ball in, then jostled past two Athens defenders inside the 10-yard line to complete the 53-yard scoring play.
Only three seconds remained in the half, and the Buckeyes had a two-score lead.
“We had run a couple of stretch plays previously out of that,” Wilburn explained. “Their corners bit, their safety bit and they thought I was going to take it for a stretch. It was wide open.”
“Game changer,” Richards added.
The Buckeyes made it 28-7 after their first possession in the third quarter when fullback Colton Snyder capped off a four-minute march with a four-yard touchdown run.
The Bulldogs then kicked their offense in gear. Junior quarterback Joey Moore finished with 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and threw for 187 yards and two more scores.
Moore hit his first eight passes of the second half, including touchdowns of 10 and 28 yards to Halbert. The Bulldogs trailed 28-21 with just under 10 minutes remaining.
But the Buckeyes answered. Seel hit Wilburn with a 19-yard gain thanks to a diving catch. Two plays later, Seel’s desperate heave down the right sideline was tracked down by Phillips for a 46-yard gain. Seel snuck it in from the 1 for a 35-21 lead with 7:01 left.
The Bulldogs rallied with an epic, 15-play drive than ended with Moore’s 14-yard TD on an option keeper but just 3:47 remaining.
The Bulldogs got the ball back one last time, with 1:39 left. But on third and eight form the N-Y 31, Moore took the shot deep that Phillips furrowed away from Halbert for the clinching turnover.
“Kind of needed one more stop or a little bit more time there at the end to score,” White said.
Athens took an early 7-0 lead, but spent the first half in self-destruct mode. The Bulldogs had 75 yards in penalties in the first two quarters, excluding three that were declined, and two different defensive penalties extended scoring drives.
Athens had five dropped passes. The ‘Dogs fumbled the ball five times, but recovered each of them. There was a 17-yard loss on a shotgun snap. And the defensive breakdown at the end of the half.
Seel’s 42-yard TD on a scramble tied the game at 7-7. On the PAT try, Athens was called for two penalties. On the ensuing kickoff, the Buckeyes kicked from the Athens’ 45-yard line and used an onside kick from Alec Taylor to gain an extra possession.
On that drive, Seel hit Phillips for 31 yards down the middle, and Wilburn scored from the nine on the next play for a 14-7 lead.
The avalanche of early mistakes doomed the Bulldogs. The Buckeyes had confidence, a two-score lead and then ultimately a league title.
“Certainly, we didn’t look like a team should look in week 10,” White said. “In my eyes, that’s on coaching. “You just can’t do those things in a rivalry game against a good team.”
The reality of the finality of the night hit Wilburn after the game. With 72 career touchdowns, and his first touchdown pass in two years, he went out with a night to remember. The OU commit plans to enroll at Ohio in January and join the Bobcats in the next semester.
But tonight, he got to go out a champion with his brothers in Orange and Brown.
“Crazy, crazy. It’s been a ride,” he said as he struggled to hold back the tears that came seconds later.
Nelsonville-York 35, Athens 28
Nels.-York 14 7 7 7 — 35
Athens 7 0 7 14 — 28
Athens — Joey Moore, 10-yard run (Drake George kick), 8:06, 1Q
N-Y — Mikey Seel, 42-yard run (Alec Taylor kick), 5:54, 1Q
N-Y — Keegan Wilburn, 9-yard run (Taylor kick), 3:41, 1Q
N-Y — Austin Thrapp, 53-yard pass from Keegan Wilburn (Taylor kick), 0:03, 2Q
N-Y — Colton Snyder, 4-yard run (Taylor kick), 8:01, 3Q
Athens — Braeden Halbert, 10-yard pass from Joey Moore (George kick), 4:02, 3Q
Athens — Braeden Halbert, 28-yard pass from Joey Moore (George kick), 9:48, 4Q
N-Y — Mike Seel, 1-yard run (Taylor kick), 7:01, 4Q
Athens — Joey Moore, 4-yard run (George kick), 3:07, 4Q
First downs 14 17
Total Plays 64 58
Rushing (plys-yds) 44-151 38-148
Passing yards 225 187
Total yards 376 335
Passes (cmp-att-int) 10-20-1 20-34-1
Fumbles (no-lost) 2-1 5-0
Penalties (no-yds) 8-90 7-100
Punts (no-avg) 3-19 5-31.8
Nelsonville-York — Keegan Wilburn 19-92 TD, Mikey Seel 11-34 2 TDs, Colton Snyder 11-26 TD, Brandon Phillips 1-0, Drew Carter 1-0, TEAM 1-(-1); Athens — Joey Moore 25-113 2 TDs, Peyton Gail 10-44 , Nate Trainer 2-8, TEAM 1-(-17).
Nelsonville-York — Mikey Seel 9-18-1 172, Mikey Seel 1-1-0 53 TD, Drew Carter 0-1-0 0; Athens — Joey Moore 20-34-1 187 2 TDs.
Nelsonville-York — Ethan Gail 4-48, Brandon Phillips 3-82, Austin Thrapp 2-61 TD, Drew Carter 1-31, Keegan Wilburn 1-19; Athens — Braeden Halbert 6-69 2 TDs, Nate Trainer 4-36, Reece Wallace 4-34, Brayden Markins 4-26, Peyton Gail 1-3.