DAYTON — It took a massive defensive performance, but the curse is finally over for the Pirates.
Top-seeded West Side terminated a five-game losing streak to nemesis Declo by earning a hard-fought 7-0 victory over the fourth-seeded Hornets in the semifinals of the 2A State Football Championships on a cold, windy and sometimes snowy Friday afternoon at Lyle S. Henderson Field.
West Side will now square off against No. 3 Firth next Friday or Saturday at Madison High School. A second win this season over the Cougars, which upset No. 2 North Fremont 7-6 in the other semifinal, would give the Pirates their fourth state title since 2010.
“Well, it was a defensive dogfight,” WS head coach Tyson Moser said. “I’m proud of our kids for the way that they responded and played. Games like that are tough. It just feels like nothing works and when something does work, something goes wrong and messes it up, whether it’s a penalty or a kid slips. ... And so it was a frustrating game, but I’m just really proud of our kids for stepping up and hanging in there, hanging onto that lead and never quitting.”
Over the past 11 seasons, the Pirates (10-0) have consistently dominated all of their rivals, with the exception of the Hornets. Declo (8-3) sent West Side packing in the 2A state semifinals in 2017 and 2018, and edged the Pirates in the championship game in 2013. Additionally, the Hornets were the last team to defeat the Pirates in Dayton, back in 2017.
There was no heartbreak for West Side this time around, though. In the process, the Pirates broke the program record with their 20th straight victory. West Side had won 19 games in a row three other times during its history.
“It means everything,” WS senior offensive lineman Jaxon England said. “The goal this week, it was just to beat Declo. We wanted to break that streak. Just thinking about the two years that we got beat by them a couple of years back ... we couldn’t let them do it three times in a row.”
As Moser said, it was a defensive dogfight as both teams struggled to move the ball in the less-than-ideal conditions. The Pirates only mustered up 118 yards of total offense, but they made fewer mistakes than the Hornets, who managed a measly 111 yards.
The Hornets are predominately a running team, but they snap the ball out of a deep shotgun formation. A handful of poor snaps ultimately spelled doom for Declo, which lost an astounding 35 yards on one of those plays. Meanwhile, the Pirates didn’t have any of those mishaps, although a holding penalty negated a touchdown run by Josh Reeder in the third quarter.
Declo entered Friday’s showdown ranked first in 2A in scoring offense (40.1 points an outing) and surely rushing offense (358 yards per game), but was stymied by a very good West Side defense. The Hornets only managed 59 yards on 42 rushing attempts Friday.
Indeed, it was an extremely gratifying defensive performance for the Pirates, who secured their ninth shutout during their aforementioned winning streak. Opponents are averaging a paltry 5.5 points an outing against West Side this season.
“It means a lot,” said West Side senior lineman Wesley Millburn, who had a monster game as he finished with 12 tackles, including six for a loss, and forced a fumble. “I just knew we had to keep them in front of us and not let them get open down the field. And the snow helped with that a little bit, them slipping, but it also helped them by us slipping. It was (challenging) that way.”
The must crucial aspect of West Side’s defensive gem was it really didn’t allow any explosive plays. Case in point: Declo had one 26-yard passing play and zero rushes of more than 14 yards.
“Last week I think they (had) five touchdowns in 11 plays, so for us to give them no big plays, that’s big, and our defense did a great job,” Moser said. “We threw a little different look at them. You know, I give our defensive coaches credit for that ... but the kids were the ones that had to go out there and execute the plan, and they did it.”
Likewise, the Hornets also played very, very well defensively, but they did give up one game-changing play with 4:40 remaining in the first quarter. West Side quarterback Blaize Brown rolled outside of the pocket, cut upfield and sprinted his way 46 yards to paydirt.
The Pirates won the coin toss and the field position battle in the opening half, and that made a noticeable difference. It all started when the Hornets went three and out on the opening series of the contest and were forced to punt into a nasty wind. A short field is what led to Brown’s touchdown scamper.
“The field position was huge and we definitely wanted to defer because we definitely wanted to be able to pick which way we were kicking,” Moser said. “And so, yeah that field position was huge and it just felt like we were right there that whole half, pretty much right there on their half (of the field).”
The entire second half was contested in a continual snowstorm, but that didn’t seem to bother the Pirates too much. In fact, they had a golden opportunity to double their lead, but ultimately turned the ball over on downs in the red zone after the aforementioned TD by Reeder was wiped away.
“Well, I’ll tell you (during) this week of practice, it was freezing cold,” England said. “Like, I couldn’t feel my toes, my fingers were frozen. This game, it was nice actually. I could feel all of the limbs on my body. It felt amazing to play in the snow. It was really satisfying to get that win, too.”
None of West Side’s current athletes saw any playing time when Declo rolled to a 61-28 victory in the semifinals two years ago. Nevertheless, Millburn and company still felt the added pressure of ending the drought against the Hornets.
“Yeah, I felt pressure going into this game because watching film, (Declo) was just running over everybody and not getting tackled, so I knew we had to make sure we tackled them and wrapped them up,” Millburn said.
In addition to Millburn, Taze Stegelmeier sparkled defensively for the Pirates as he recorded 16 tackles, including three for a loss, and recovered a fumble. Parker Henderson had a sack for West Side.
Brown ended up completing 7 of 12 passes for 51 yards and an interception for West Side, while Declo signal caller Gabe Matthews finished with 52 yards on 4 of 8 passing. Matthews, who rushed for a whopping 1,778 yards in Declo’s other nine contested games — the Hornets beat Wendell by forfeit —gained 53 yards on 27 attempts.