SULLIVAN TWP. — The gifts came complete with bows on top, and Black River’s season came to an end Saturday because of them.
The result was a 51-42 loss to fifth-seeded Fairless in a Division V, Region 15 quarterfinal at packed and rowdy Art Stevenson Field.
The points that doomed the fourth-seeded Pirates (7-4) came on two kickoff returns for touchdowns and another TD that was set up by a fumble on their own 2-yard line.
Against an opponent that had never won a playoff game and featured Stark County all-time leading passer Hunter Wells, it was a recipe for disaster.
Fairless (8-3) advances to face Principals Athletic Conference rival Manchester (9-2) next week.
“I’m sure we’d all love to be playing still now, but that’s a good team,” said Black River running back Andrew Vaughn, who had 240 yards from scrimmage and 30 points. “I mean, if we could lose to anybody — and I hate to say it — that’s a good team to lose to.”
Black River did many things right in a showdown between old Black River High School teammates — the Pirates’ Al Young and the Falcons’ Don Wilson — by racking up 498 yards of total offense and surpassing 40 points for the fifth time this season.
It also did more than enough wrong in critical times, and special teams were at the forefront.
The Pirates hadn’t allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown since Oct. 14, 2011, yet saw Fairless’ Jeremy Mahaffey and Carter Casperd go the distance. Casperd’s rumble in particular was demoralizing, as it made the score 37-26 with 34 seconds left in the third quarter.
Black River’s Cody Bartolic also clanged two extra points off the left upright, and Brock Waltz’s roughing the punter penalty set up a Falcons field goal in the second quarter.
Those miscues accounted for a 19-point swing.
“It shocked me a little bit,” Pirates coach Al Young said. “The second (kickoff return) was a killer.
“I wanted to nickel-and-dime them down the field and I’m thinking, ‘This was perfect. This was working out how we wanted,’ and they turn around and go ‘bang,’ and I’m saying, ‘Are you kidding me?”
Adding to the misery was a wild 11-second sequence late in the third quarter.
With Wells (16-for-28, 285 yards, 2 TDs) finally finding his bearings after a pedestrian first half, Fairless marched to the Black River 3 up 24-20. Running back Mahaffey (106 yards from scrimmage, three TDs) then fumbled away the ball to Ryan Slone for what appeared to be a potentially game-changing moment.
Instead, the Pirates’ Colin Filak gave the ball back on the next snap and Mahaffey answered with a TD.
“It wasn’t anything dramatic, either,” Young said. “It was a simple handoff, and we’ve done it a million times this year.”
The Pirates still had a few opportunities to make things interesting. Waltz (career-high 187 passing yards, three total TDs) rushed for a 9-yard score to make it 37-34 with 10:02 left, but Wells went 4-for-4 for 94 yards during a 14-0 Fairless run that put the night on ice.
“We had a couple breakdowns that ultimately have been what we’re doing all year,” Young said. “That hurt us.”
Black River completely controlled the early going, yet led only 14-7 following Waltz’s first rushing score because of Mahaffey’s kickoff return.
At that point — with 4:10 left in the first quarter — the Pirates had the ball for 7:34. It ran 18 plays and complied 132 yards before Fairless took its first snap from scrimmage.
Due in large part to disguising its zone coverages, Black River also frazzled Wells a bit early. The smooth-slinging Youngstown State recruit was just 7-for-17 for 93 yards in the first half — and those numbers were inflated by a 54-yard touchdown pass to Zack Kelly — and would have been intercepted three times if not for drops by Black River’s Aaron Schmitz, Sean Holly and Vaughn.
Despite Wells’ struggles, Fairless led 17-14 at halftime thanks to Mahaffey’s kickoff return, the Wells-Kelly 54-yard screen and a 40-yard field goal by strong-legged Matt Bair that followed the roughing the punter penalty.
“Our defense was playing at a very high level for the first half,” Young said. “I was very confident at halftime.”
Even so, Fairless wasted no time in extending the lead to open the second, as it needed just five plays and 1:53 to cover 60 yards. A 36-yard play-action pass from Wells to Austin Weyandt paved the way for a short TD run by Casperd.
Black River responded with a 59-yard TD strike from Waltz to Vaughn, but the two-fumble sequence inside the Pirates’ 5 happened just three minutes later.
Though it was a highly disappointing loss, the Pirates were surprisingly composed. The reasoning: Fairless defeated Manchester in triple overtime one week after the Panthers crushed Black River 52-13.
“That says a lot about how we’ve grown during the season,” Vaughn said. “It was a great team we played. That’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen in my life — he’s definitely going places — but I think we kept them on their toes all night. It was back and forth.”
Andrew Vaughn finished the game with 28 carries for 143 yards, two receptions for 97 yards, four touchdowns a pair of two-point conversions.
He surpassed 6,000 rushing yards on a 2-yard carry in the first quarter, and broke the Medina County record for points in a season (194; Wadsworth’s Jack Snowball in 2011) on the 59-yard TD reception.
• The Pirates unofficially broke the county standard for rushing yards per game with 396.4. They also own three of the top seven highest-scoring games after beating Clearview 64-60 and Firelands 73-35 earlier in the year.
• Black River ran a whopping 79 plays, including 45 in the first half. It also completed 10-of-16 third-down conversions and was 1-for-1 on fourth down.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.