Kenneth Coleman | The Gazette
WADSWORTH — Everything is elevated during the playoffs. Teams are faster, defenses hit harder, fans cheer louder and players are more focused.
Fresh off a one-loss regular season, the eighth-seeded Wadsworth football team entered Saturday’s Division I, Region 1 quarterfinal against No. 9 Cleveland Heights with high hopes, but it didn’t take long to realize the Tigers were more talented than any team the Grizzlies had faced all season.
Cleveland Heights dominated from start to finish for a 35-7 road win — its first postseason victory in school history. The Tigers (10-1) advance to face top-seeded St. Edward (10-1), which crushed Shaker Heights 49-0.
“We face a lot of teams with a lot of skill, but they had skill and were tough up front,” Wadsworth coach Greg Dennison said. “They did to us what we’re used to doing to teams. They were physical and controlled the line of scrimmage.”
The Tigers offensive line led the way for running back Marcus Bagley to rush for a game-high 190 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries. Normally stingy and sure-tackling, Wadsworth defenders struggled to take Bagley down on initial contact.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder broke a lot of tackles at or near the line of scrimmage and continued downfield for a 6.1 average.
“I try not to let the first guy take me down,” Bagley said. “I’m too big and strong to let that happen. My line did a great job tonight.”
Quarterback Taz Pauldo (76 yards), Karvele Booker-Hunt (14) and Deante Powell (13) combined with Bagley to give Cleveland Heights 293 rushing yards. Of the Tigers’ 23 first downs, 16 came on running plays.
“We didn’t tackle well, and we usually do that well,” Dennison said. “A lot of that was because of (Bagley) being so tough.”
The Tigers scored first on a 10-yard run by Bagley with 3:59 left in the first quarter. He fumbled on the play, but recovered it in the end zone. The score was set up by a 43-yard punt return by Rayshawn Dickerson to the 21-yard line.
The lead was extended to 14-0 early in the second quarter when Pauldo (9-for-12, 96 yards, 3 TDs) connected with receiver Taylor Jones (3 catches, 25 yards) for a 16-yard score. The play was highlighted by a nasty juke move by Jones at the 5.
Wadsworth struggled to get anything going offensively, as it managed only two first downs and 51 yards in the first half. The Grizzlies finished with seven first downs and 123 yards for the game.
Adam Dennison was sacked four times by an aggressive defensive front line. More surprisingly was running back Martice Jackson was held to a season-low 17 yards on 10 carries.
“Jackson is a great back, and we knew we had to hit him hard to stop their playaction,” emotional Cleveland Heights coach Jeff Rotsky said. “We needed this. We wanted this. We worked hard for this.”
The Tigers made it 21-0 at 9:39 in the third quarter on a 3-yard pass from Pauldo to Dickerson. The door was essentially closed on the Grizzlies when Pauldo hit Booker-Hunt for a 21-yard score later in the quarter to make it 28-0.
Wadsworth finally scored on a 2-yard run by Greg Young with 54 seconds left in the third. Scott Campbell had a 16-yard reception and a 14-yard run on the drive.
The senior reflected on the season, his teammates and the Wadsworth community after the game.
“We bonded this season and became a family,” Campbell said. “There’s nothing like the way the city gets behind our team. It was so intense the whole week at school. We’re gonna miss it.”
Cleveland Heights responded with a 15-play scoring drive capped by a 1-yard run by Bagley that ate 7:36 off the clock and made it 35-7.
It was one of many time-consuming possessions by the Tigers, which didn’t bode well for a Grizzlies team that lacks the offensive firepower to score quickly. Giving Cleveland Heights four first downs by defensive penalties didn’t help matters.
Although Jackson, who suffered an ankle injury in the regular-season finale against Nordonia, didn’t have the type of game Wadsworth fans have grown accustomed to, he’s thankful for what the Grizzlies accomplished this season.
“A lot of people didn’t expect much from us this season, and I think we proved them wrong,” Jackson said. “It was big to host a playoff game, and it was great for the community.”
Greg Dennison echoed those thoughts and didn’t want his team hanging its heads too long.
“It hurts now, but we did a lot of things this year that people didn’t think we could do,” Dennison said. “Our players should be very proud of that.”
Contact Kenneth Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org.