GRANGER TWP. — Quarterback Josh Palko rolled left, squared his shoulders and let the pigskin fly with the Cloverleaf football team’s pride and possibly Highland’s playoff life hanging in the balance Friday night.
Colts receiver Derek Daubenmire and Hornets safety Jerry Scholle collided in the corner of the end zone as time expired. The ball squirted up in the air.
Cloverleaf’s Robby Buckwald, who had his 32-yard field goal attempt blocked on the previous play, didn’t think he had a shot. He was on one knee and a Highland defender was falling into his left shoulder.
When the mud settled, Buckwald had the ball to stunningly end one of the most amazing, jaw-dropping games in Medina County and Suburban League history.
Final score: Cloverleaf 41, Highland 35.
“I really can’t explain my emotions right now,” said Palko, who went on to do just that. “It’s the highest feeling I’ve ever felt in my life. Against a team that could have went to the playoffs if they won to pretty much ruining their season, there’s no better way to end my career.”
Whether Highland (6-4, 3-4) will advance to the Division II, Region 6 playoffs has not been finalized, but the Hornets’ chances don’t look good thanks to an unbelievable rally by Cloverleaf (4-6, 2-5), which beat its county rival for the fourth straight time.
Behind its rugged running combination of quarterback Scholle (29 carries, 188 yards, 3 TDs) and tailback Kent Masters (31, 132, 1), Highland took a 35-28 lead after Masters scored to finish a 14-play, 62-yard drive.
On the next possession, Cloverleaf elected to go for it on fourth-and-7 from the Highland 35 with 4:50 remaining. Scholle slid over to double team Buckwald (3 receptions, 97 yards, 4 total TDs), leaving Devin Cunningham (4, 116) free to torch his defender on a go route for a 33-yard reception.
Buckwald scored on a 1-yard run three plays later, but 3:36 remained.
The Hornets marched to the Cloverleaf 41 with 1:50 left. Scholle once again ran his patented play, the read option, only to be stuffed for a 1-yard loss by Buckwald, who correctly determined Scholle was going to keep the ball.
J.D Schleich and Cunningham combined to pressure Scholle on the next play, and the senior overthrew tight end Austin Adams to give Cloverleaf a last-gasp shot.
Palko (11-for-21 passing, 192 yards, 2 TDs) kept the ball on a perfect read option of his own to move the ball into Highland territory, but the Hornets defense forced third-and-8 from the Hornets 35 with 22 seconds left.
Palko then went down the sideline to Buckwald, who made an acrobatic, double-teamed catch at the 15. Palko immediately spiked the ball to set up the field goal attempt with 10 seconds left.
Despite a perfect Brian Livingstone snap and Daubenmire hold, Highland’s Caleb Ernshaw busted through the line and blocked the kick. With three Hornets right on his tail, Daubenmire fell on the ball at the 35 to set up one of the wildest plays in Cloverleaf history.
“We practice that play every week, but we didn’t think it would ever come down to this,” Buckwald said. “This was the first time it worked out.
“I knew I wasn’t going to jump up there and get it, so I just sat in the back. I slipped and the ball went into my hands.”
How Cloverleaf was even in the game was downright remarkable considering Highland’s time-of-possession dominance in the first half.
When Scholle scored to cap a grueling 17-play, 70-yard drive with 2:51 left in the second quarter, Highland had ran 47 plays to Cloverleaf’s 12 and had outgained the Colts 238-102.
The score was tied at 21 because Cunningham ran back a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown, Trevor Morrison set up another score by taking an interception to the Highland 5 and Buckwald hit Cunningham on a jet option pass for a 60-yard TD strike.
A lot of the Colts’ moxie had to do with Buckwald’s gutsy two-way performance.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound linebacker shadowed Scholle on nearly every play, forcing the do-everything quarterback to hand off to Masters into the teeth of the defense. While it didn’t stop the Hornets from moving the ball, it limited the big-play abilities of Scholle, whose longest gain outside of a 27-yard TD run was 14 yards.
Buckwald also ran for two goal-line scores out of a power-T formation, caught a 37-yard TD pass on third-and-12 and booted five extra points. His 29 points were the most by a Cloverleaf player since Jody Dunneback had 30 against Brunswick in 1969.
“(This win) says a lot about us,” said Buckwald, whose Colts were coming off a loss to one-win Nordonia. “We stood in there knowing Highland was a good team coming in. They had a better record than us, but it just goes to show that we never give up.”
Highland played hard, but never came up with a key stop in a key moment. As a result, the Hornets will be intently watching joeeitel.com for the latest computer rankings this morning.
Avon, Maple Heights and Toledo Central Catholic clinched three of the eight spots last week. Fourth-ranked Sandusky, No. 7 Olmsted Falls, No. 8 Fremont Ross, No. 9 East Cleveland Shaw and No. 10 Tiffin Columbian won Friday. North Royalton, Green, Revere and Nordonia, who account for four Hornets victories, lost to limit Highland’s second-level points.
On the other hand, No. 6 Perrysburg lost to No. 11 Maumee and the Hornets received second-level points from Olmsted Falls, meaning tonight’s Holy Name-Cleveland Central Catholic showdown could decide the Hornets’ fate.
No matter what happens, the stunned silence in the locker room was telling.
“It was one of those games where everything went their way,” coach Tom Lombardo said. “You’ve got to take care of your own stuff. If it works out, great, but it’s irrelevant right now. Give Cloverleaf credit. They made a lot of plays and both teams played real hard. It’s obviously heartbreak for any team to have to lose a game like that.”
While the Hornets have to wait to learn whether they will make the playoffs, the Colts ended their season with a Hail Mary that will be talked about for years to come.
“The last play of the game, that’s what we live for,” Palko said. “That play will make or break you, and it definitely made us tonight. We got the ‘W’ and it was the best game we’ve ever played.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cloverleaf 41, Highland 35
CLOVERLEAF 14 7 7 13 — 41
HIGHLAND 7 14 7 7 — 35
H — Jerry Scholle 27 run (Joe Simonis kick), 8:15.
C — Devin Cunningham 92 kickoff return (Robby Buckwald kick), 8:02.
C — Buckwald 5 run (Buckwald kick), 0:17.
C — Cunningham 60 pass from Buckwald (Buckwald kick), 10:33.
H — Scholle 12 run (Simonis kick), 7:52.
H — Scholle 14 run (Simonis kick), 2:51.
C — Buckwald 37 pass from Josh Palko (Buckwald kick), 9:09.
H — Alex Koran 1 run (Simonis kick), 5:53.
H — Kent Masters 6 run (Simonis kick), 8:29.
C — Buckwald 1 run (Buckwald kick), 3:36.
C — Buckwald 35 pass from Palko, 0:00.
Colts, Hornets in amazing game