GRANGER TWP. — If the Highland football team wins 13 games again this season, it will be playing for the Division II state championship.
State semifinalists a year ago, the Hornets were done in by a key injury, several crucial mistakes, porous pass coverage and two debatable calls Friday night in dropping their non-league season opener 21-20 to Wooster.
“They’ll respond,” Highland coach Tom Lombardo said. “In many ways, the first game is an exaggerated scrimmage. You really don’t know your team until the third or fourth game.”
The Hornets played the second half without starting quarterback Blake Phelps, who complained of dizziness at halftime, but nearly got one last chance to pull out a victory.
With Highland out of timeouts and less than a minute and a half left in the game, Wooster handed the ball to running back Martavius Dyson on second-and-10 from the Hornets 26-yard line. Dyson had the ball pop loose, with Highland’s Tyler Frederick recovering.
Frederick not only recovered, he busted loose and was running 40 yards downfield when Dyson was ruled down by contact.
“It was a fumble,” Lombardo said. “The ball went flying in the air and we’re running with it. I’m not 100 percent sure (Frederick) wasn’t down, but it was definitely a fumble.”
When the Generals called time with 1:01 to go to regroup, Lombardo protested the call further and drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Two kneel-downs later, the game was over.
Moments earlier, Wooster was facing third-and-14 from its own 18 and got a first down when Highland was called for pass interference. The call was close but appeared to be correct, though the official nearest the play didn’t throw the flag, which came from at least 20 yards away.
“”That’s not the game,” Lombardo said. “We made too many mistakes.”
The most pivotal came with the game tied at 14 and Highland facing third-and-2 from its own 27. Backup quarterback Tyler Zelinski (1-for-8, 39 yards, TD, int.) tried to pull the ball away from his running back on a read option, but fumbled, with Wooster’s Eddie Rooney recovering and racing 19 yards to the 5.
Dyson (22 rushes, 132 yards) went in on the first play and the extra point put the Generals up 21-14 with 56 seconds left in the third period.
Zelinski, a 6-foot-2, 160-pound junior, bounced back to throw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Coltin Kinsey on the first play of the fourth quarter — a Generals defensive back went for the pick on a short out and Kinsey ran 30 yards down the sideline — but another miscue kept the Hornets from tying the game.
Phelps is normally the holder on extra points, and his replacement dropped the snap and was stopped short of the goal line, leaving Wooster up one.
“Give them credit,” Lombardo said of the Generals. “They played a really good game, but our kids kept fighting, too.
“(Zelinski) did a decent job for having to come in like that,” he added. “He had zero experience because we had to give almost all the reps in practice to Phelps to get him ready.”
Highland made its first mistake on the opening kickoff, as Wooster recovered an onside kick and went 49 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead. Cameron Daugherty hit Marquise Blair from 8 yards out for the score.
Daugherty (12-for-20, 108 yards) and Blair (10 catches, 77 yards) hooked up for a 49-yard score on the first play of the second quarter to make it 14-0 before Highland came storming back.
Phelps (5-for-13, 61 yards, int., 8 rushes, 43 yards), who was taking over for two-time Gazette MVP Bruce Kinsey, went 21 yards to pull the Hornets within seven, and Nick Corvo (16 rushes, 66 yards) went in from 5 yards out on the next possession to tie the game.
At that point, the Hornets had all the momentum, but Phelps, who played the entire first half, was unable to play at the start of the third period. Lombardo was vague about the senior’s injury after the game, but said he thought Phelps would be able to play in Week 2 against Buckeye.
On Wooster’s second possession of the half, Blair was wide open deep and Daugherty put the ball right on the money, but the receiver dropped a sure 58-yard TD.
“Those two kids hurt us all night,” Lombardo said. “They’re both probably going to be college players.”
Highland got just two first downs in the second half, meaning even if the late pass interference call or apparent fumble recovery had gone its way, there’s no guarantee it would have scored.
The Hornets did a great job on returning 1,500-yard rusher Dyson for most of the night, but he got loose for runs of 49 and 35 yards in the second half. His other 20 carries netted 48 yards.
Wooster 21, Highland 20
WOOSTER 7 7 7 0 — 21
HIGHLAND 0 14 0 6 — 20
W — Marquise Blair 8 pass from Cameron Daugherty (Alex Hasapis kick), 6:44.
W — Blair 49 pass from Daugherty (Hasapis kick), 11:53.
H — Blake Phelps 21 run (Luke Allen kick), 8:26.
H — Nick Corvo 5 run (Allen kick), 2:46.
W — Martavius Dyson 5 run (Hasapis kick), 0:56.
H — Coltin Kinsey 39 pass from Tyler Zelinski (run failed), 11:53.