By Carl Holcomb
The Blue Devils went shopping on Black Friday purchasing a return ticket to Wheeling Island with a minute and change left on a touchdown by Jaiden Smith in the state semifinals in Baker to defend the Class A state championship with a 27-21 victory outbidding undefeated top ranked East Hardy (12-1).
“From the bottom of our heart, we don’t pull this out without the good Lord’s help and we thank Him so much. We thank our community and our kids played their hearts out. They battled adversity tonight, I’m speechless. Pleasants County, West Virginia we’re coming home and we’re not done yet,” St. Marys Coach Jodi Mote remarked.[private]
Any way one looks at it, this was a bargain ticket price for a back and forth battle for a berth in the Super Six.
No. 5 St. Marys (11-1) ended the Cougars’ 25-game home winning streak dating back to 2014 as home field advantage prices were slashed in their fifth playoff meeting.
East Hardy was vying for a third straight trip to Wheeling, but the Blue Devils took away that chance.
“What a football game. I thought we outplayed them in the first half more than the scoreboard showed, unfortunately we couldn’t capitalize. A couple pretty obvious pass interference penalties didn’t go our way, but they don’t call pass interference in high school football. Our kids battled all the way to the end. Two really good football teams and unfortunately it had to end for one of us,” East Hardy Coach Chad Williams commented.
“We establish any sort of a run game and that makes it tough. We had opportunities in the passing game, but couldn’t quite connect. Honestly, we didn’t play bad, we just ran into a good football team. We got exactly what we expected. They are who we thought they were. They played us the same defensively and they played us the same offensively. They don’t change what they do and we don’t change what we do. Good programs don’t change what they do. We got what we expected, but unfortunately the breaks didn’t go our way.”
Entering the fourth quarter, the Cougars held a 21-14 advantage and possession of the ball.
East Hardy was on its own 10-yard line to begin the last stanza facing third down and an incompletion was made as the receiver was bumped which led to a punt and the Blue Devils setup shop at the Cougars 25-yard line.
St. Marys Dylan Gray notched two yards on a carry and was brought down by East Hardy’s Ryan Rogers and Casey Connelley.
Smith gained 11 yards for a first down and was tackled by Quinton Cook and Brett Tharp.
Smith rushed into the end zone as Andrew Tharp was trying to halt the progress and Roberto Gonzalez added the extra point to tie the game at 21-all for the Blue Devils with 10:21 remaining.
Jeffrey Mills made a catch for eight yards to put the Cougars at the 39-yard line with St. Marys Jeremy Smith chasing him down, then East Hardy quarterback Clay Skovron garnered a first down near midfield at the 48 and was stopped by Jaiden Smith.
Skovron launched the ball in the cold temperature and it was intercepted by Matt Eichhorn giving St. Marys possession at the 20-yard line.
Smith made two carries and was tackled by Dakoda Sager, Nick Miller and Brett Tharp as first down marker was moved at the 31-yard line, but two plays later the Blue Devils committed a turnover as quarterback Eric Illar was intercepted by Brett Tharp to give East Hardy a scoring opportunity from the St. Marys 36-yard line with 6:51 remaining.
Andrew Tharp slipped on the first pass attempt, but made the grab on the next throw for a 24-yard strike into the red zone at the 12-yard line.
Skovron’s pass was just out of reach of Aden Funkhouser, who was shoved as the ball sailed through the end zone.
Skovron was chased out of the pocket by Antone Herring and Eichhorn for a two-yard gain.
Mills made a catch, but ran the opposite direction eluding a defender and was brought down by Smith at the nine yard line.
East Hardy elected to attempt a 26-yard field goal, but Miller’s kick angled wide right with five minutes left in the game with the score deadlocked at 21 apiece.
St. Marys took over on the 20-yard line and Smith rushed for about 20 yards and Brett Tharp made the tackle, but was assessed a face mask penalty placing the Blue Devils in East Hardy territory at the 46.
Smith bobbled the handoff and regained it on the run before being tackled by Skovron on a seven yard gain.
Connelley and Miller joined Phillip Mullin stopping Smith on a first down carry to the 35-yard line.
St. Marys’ Dylan Gray added three yards with three minutes to go as Tharp and Sager recorded the tackle.
The Blue Devils faced third down from the 27-yard line, but Gray managed to muscle for a first down at the 23 with Quinton Cook, Miller and Mullin making the stop.
Smith added six yards into the red zone with Funkhouser, Skovron and Brett Tharp notching the stop with a timeout called at 1:31.
Smith escaped the pride of Cougars for the go-ahead 17-yard touchdown and eventual game-winning score with 1:25 remaining with the conversion attempt failing as St. Marys went up 27-21.
Mills made a 17-yard return to put East Hardy at the 37-yard line with 1:18 on the clock.
St. Marys defensive back Isaak Mooney knocked the ball away from intended target Brett Tharp.
Skovron went to the air again and Eichhorn nearly made his third interception diving toward the ball.
On third down, Skovron connected with Mills for a three yard gain with Eichhorn making the tackle.
Facing fourth down with the season on the line with 59 seconds to go, Brett Tharp hauled in the pass for a first down by midfield at the 49 with Mooney stopping the play.
A pass to Mills was bobbled and dropped, then a pass was just off the mark for Funkhouser.
The Cougars were looking at 3rd-and-10 with 33 seconds left and Skovron’s pass to Brett Tharp was deflected as Mooney flew over Tharp colliding with Anthony Wince with both landing on top of Tharp.
There was an injury timeout as medical staff came out to check on Tharp, who was able to walk off the field on his own power.
East Hardy had 26 seconds to work with on fourth down and the pass attempt to Mills went awry as the Blue Devils took over to kneel down for the victory ending the Cougars season.
St. Marys made the plays in the fourth quarter to seal the deal on Black Friday, but East Hardy cashed in with success in the first and third periods for leads which were bargained off later.
The Blue Devils managed one first down on their game opening possession reaching the 30-yard line before punting.
East Hardy started on its own 37-yard line and made a quick aerial strike as Skovron found Mills racing down the sideline for 29 yards before pushed out by Mooney at the St. Marys 34-yard line.
Skovron sandwiched two short runs around an offensive infraction leading to a punting situation, but there was a roughing the kicker penalty by Jeremy Smith which placed the Cougars in the red zone at the 19-yard line.
On second down, Skovron added five yards and an offsides penalty created third down and inches at the nine.
Skovron picked up two yards, then Mullin was dropped for a loss by Jaiden Smith.
Andrew Tharp caught a nine yard touchdown pass from Skovron and Miller’s kick missed as East Hardy took the initial 6-nil lead a the 4:36 mark.
Smith was tackled at midfield by Brett Tharp as the Blue Devils prepared to answer in three plays.
Eichhorn caught a 37-yard pass from Illar into the red zone at the 14-yard line with Funkhouser making the tackle.
Smith rushed for four yards and was stopped by Skovron.
St. Marys evened the score on a 10-yard touchdown run by Dylan Gray and took a 7-6 edge on the kick by Gonzalez at the 3:16 mark.
The kickoff sailed out of bounds and the Cougars made St. Marys kick again and the return by Mullin reached the 23-yard line.
Mills made a 19-yard reception for a first down at the 42-yard line, then Skovron’s next pass was a bit too far for Funkhouser.
After a timeout and false start, the ensuing pass went above Mills.
The Blue Devils kept a double team on East Hardy’s top threat Brett Tharp in the first half, limiting him to only one catch for nine yards in the game.
Funkhouser made a third down conversion with a 16-yard catch at the St. Marys 21-yard line, then Skovron lost a yard on the next play.
Skovron connected with Funkhouser for a 22-yard touchdown pass with 1:52 left in the first quarter as East Hardy regained the lead and Miller’s kick made it 13-7.
Gray returned the ball just shy of midfield, then East Hardy’s Ryan Rogers came up with a huge sack sending the Blue Devils back nine yards to the 39-yard line.
Connelley and Miller dropped Eichhorn for a one yard loss, then Rogers sacked Illar to close the first quarter and St. Marys punted to begin the second quarter.
East Hardy’s Brett Tharp made a substantial return to the Blue Devils 24-yard line.
The first pass was too low for Funkhouser’s diving attempt, then Skovron was tackled behind the line of scrimmage by Herring.
Mills was grabbed by his collar when trying to haul in a catch, but the ball fell out of his hands and no penalty was called.
There was a collision in the end zone on fourth down and an initial pass interference flag was thrown, but later waved off giving the Blue Devils possession at the 23-yard line at 10:53.
Smith picked up seven yards, then there was an offensive penalty and Smith garnered those negative yards and more for first down at the 35.
Gray rushed for five yards, then Eichhorn fumbled the ball and recovered it as Skovron was diving for it.
A 10-yard reception by Gray moved the chains at the 47-yard line, then rushed for three yards and was tackled by Andrew Tharp and Austin Alt.
There was a double handoff swap with Eichhorn being met by Miller and Rogers for a loss.
Gray caught a nine yard pass to convert third down at the East Hardy 42-yard line.
On fourth down, a low pass was trapped for a catch by Eichhorn at the 31-yard line.
Skovron and Miller made tackles for minimal gains by Gray, then Rogers garnered a sack for a 10-yard loss on third down forcing a punt.
East Hardy started at its own 20-yard line and Skovron connected with Funkhouser on a diving catch for 28 yards.
The momentum came to a screeching halt as St. Marys Matt Eichhorn made an interception at the 42-yard line with a minute left in the half.
The Blue Devils faked kneeling down and the pass was just off the mark.
Miller and Rogers forced a fumble, but Gray recovered it for St. Marys and a punt followed.
Brett Tharp made a fair catch for the Cougars at midfield with 11 seconds to go, then his brother Andrew Tharp made a 32-yard catch into the red zone with three seconds to spare.
Brett Tharp made a leaping catch in the end zone as time expired, but couldn’t maintain possession as the Cougars carried a 13-7 lead into the locker rooms.
There was a short high onside style kick recovered by East Hardy’s Hinton Shifflett to being the second half.
On second down, Funkhouser made a diving catch for 14 yards into St. Marys territory at the 48.
Eichhorn deflected a pass away from Mills, who was reaching back for the ball.
A bad snap fumble was recovered by Skovron, then an incompletion led to an East Hardy punt which was blocked by the Blue Devils and snatched up by Gray.
It took three minutes and six plays for St. Marys to cover 31 yards for a touchdown.
Tharp and Miller made several tackles, but the Blue Devils managed to get a first down and Smith capped off the drive with a seven yard touchdown run at 7:04 and the extra point by Gonzalez gave provided a 14-13 lead change.
Mullin returned the kickoff to the 26-yard line for the Cougars.
Mills made a catch and dodged tackles for a 38-yard acquisition to the St. Marys 36-yard line where he was brought down by Mooney.
Skovron picked up two yards, then the next pass was deflected by Dalton Houser.
Brett Tharp was caught for a loss by Smith on a reverse play and the Cougars were assessed an unsportsmanlike penalty moving the ball back near midfield on fourth down and forever (24).
The fair catch on the ensuing punt was fumbled and recovered by St. Marys.
Three plays later, Sager rocked Illar forcing a fumble and Miller snatched the ball on the Blue Devils 30-yard line.
It took five plays for East Hardy to score and regain the lead.
Mullin was tackled for a loss, then caught a pass for no gain.
After an incompletion, the Cougars faced fourth down and Brett Tharp took a direct snap and hurdled a defender on the way for a first down on a 20-yard play into the red zone at the 12-yard line.
Skovron was tackled into the end zone for the 12-yard touchdown keeper at the 2:35 mark and Mills found Andrew Tharp for the two-point conversion as East Hardy took a 21-14 advantage.
Tackles by Funkhouser and Miller plus an errant pass led to a Blue Devils punt.
The Cougars would punt early in the fourth quarter and St. Marys tied the game on the next series.
The Blue Devils rattled the Den in the closing minutes to elude capture for a Super Six appearance.
“If you were an East Hardy fan or St. Marys fan, it was just a great football game. Blessed is the best way to put it. We’re just thankful for our staff who worked with our young guys and the performance they made tonight and for our fans and the support they gave us. Blessed by God to do that and 2014 was the last time they lost here. Williamstown tried twice, Wheeling Central tried twice and our kids were able to make it happen. It was just a great football game for a fan. At halftime we came in and made adjustments as a coaching staff on offense and defense, so that is a credit to our staff. In the second half, we made more plays than they made and that was the difference. It was just one of those games, it had to be a great game. This was a special game. I thank God for it,” Coach Mote noted.
East Hardy’s seniors set a school record with 45 career victories, but not returning to Wheeling Island for a third straight season was heartbreaking.
“What a class, 45 wins. To graduate with 45 wins, I remember standing out here when our graduating class back in 2012 set a school record with 35 wins. To talk about a senior class with 45 wins, they have taken this program to whole new heights. I just hope the underclassmen saw how hard these seniors worked, not only in practice, but all summer long. Hopefully they will take on that so we have a chance to be back here next year. We want to be number one, because we want these home games. The target was obviously on our back, but the target was also on St. Marys back too. I think both of us brought maximum level of intensity tonight. Their people really traveled well and our fans were here, it was a great atmosphere. It was a great football game, a classic football game,” Coach Williams concluded.
Smith guided St. Marys with 23 carries for 165 yards and three touchdowns for the win in addition to setting a new school rushing record.
“It was awesome. I can’t explain what it means to us. It was a hard fought game and with a team like that, you’ve got to give it all you’ve got for four quarters. They definitely gave us a run for our money and made us a better team. We appreciate that and have to give them credit, because they are a heck of a football team. [Offensive line] They always do a fantastic job opening up the holes. I can’t take the credit there. It is awesome going back to the Super Six. I love giving our community what they want,” St. Marys RB Jaiden Smith said.
Skovron led the Cougars going 15-of-37 for 282 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions plus another 22 yards on the ground with one touchdown.
Skovron finished his senior season at quarterback with 168-of-318 attempts for 2,955 yards with 34 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
West Virginia MetroNews and AARP honored Skovron as the Player of the Week, the first such recognition given to an East Hardy player in program history.
“It means the world, words can’t even describe how it feels to be a part of this team and the atmosphere that it is. I can’t explain it,” East Hardy senior Clay Skovron stated.
“It was a hard fought ball game on both sides of the ball on defense and offense. St. Marys is a well-coached team and they came out on top.”
East Hardy’s Aden Funkhouser made four catches for 109 yards with one touchdown, followed by Jeffrey Mills with six catches for 99 yards and Andrew Tharp added three receptions for 65 yards and one touchdown.
Brett Tharp closed his senior season with 62 catches for 1,179 yards and state leading 16 touchdowns.
The Cougars only managed 41 rushing yards in the state semifinal, but Mullin finished his senior season with 153 carries for 875 yards.
East Hardy fell short of its goal, but gave the fans an outstanding performance to cheer about all year.[/private]