Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
As Kent Axcell rolled out of the pocket, there it was:
The end zone. There for the taking.
His intended receivers covered, the junior signal caller did what he had done time and time again during Westlake’s championship season. He made a move through the front line of the Madison defense, got into the open and turned up field.
A trio of Rams converged. Axcell made another move, but could not avoid the oncoming collision. Diving forward against Rams defender Dalton Fix, he and the ball hit the turf at the muddied 1-yard line.
The Demons, stunned knowing their season had come to an end, could only watch as the visiting Rams and their fans began to celebrate their 14-7 overtime win in the first round of the OHSAA Division II Region 6 playoffs Friday night.
Westlake, coming off it’s first Southwestern Conference championship since 1984, led 7-0 through the first three-plus quarters of the program’s first playoff game since 1989. But Madison’s defense held the Demons’ vaunted running game in check, while the Rams’ offense did just enough to punch the team’s ticket to next Friday’s second round.
Madison, featuring a run-oriented offense, stunned the home team on the first play of overtime with a well-executed pass play. Senior quarterback Alex Smith hit running back Cody Rush to his right for a 20-yard touchdown...and the Rams’ only pass completion on the night.
Fix, a big part of Madison’s running attack as well, made the conversion kick to give the Rams a 14-7 lead, their first of the game.
“We said all night we were trying to pay attention to the back leaking out because we thought it was coming eventually,” said Westlake head coach Mark Campo as the fans filed out of Lou Duchez Field for the final time in 2012.
“The other thing we looked for was them going over the middle to the tight end. It was a great call. A big play at the right time, and they executed it,” Campo said.
Westlake took over on the 20-yard line, needing seven points to send the game into a second overtime and keep it’s season alive. After surviving a near game-ending interception, Axcell converted a fourth down and nine as he hit wide receiver Bryan Mackenzie over the middle for the first down at the Madison 9-yard line.
Logan Paul was stopped on first down, then two straight Axcell passes fell incomplete. That set the stage for what turned out to be the Demons’ final play of the 2012 season.
“They had us down at halftime and we had to make adjustments,” said Madison head coach Sean Conway, whose team improved to 10-1 on the season. His Rams will move on to play Toledo Central Catholic, a team that mauled Midview, 50-7, Friday night.
“Westlake has a great football program. They’re doing a great job, and their coaches put them in great spots,” Conway said. “We had to come out fighting after halftime, and our kids did that. We’re not the most skilled team, but I think we have the most heart. Football is a game of will, not a game of skill.”
And what about the game-winning pass play in overtime?
“Our assistant coach, LeRoy Smith, set that play up,” Conway said. “We think we have one of the best quarterbacks in this area. We’re usually a running team, but on this night he came up huge for us on that play.
“Cody hadn’t played a lot of offense to that point, but he did a great job of catching the ball and getting up field for the score.”
Westlake had taken the lead in dramatic fashion early in the game when Axcell ran a keeper and sped up field for a 93-yard touchdown run. Sean Bigley added the conversion kick, and the Demons had a 7-0 lead.
Nobody knew at the time that Axcell’s TD jaunt would be the only Demon score on the night. But as the game wore on, it became apparent that the going would be tough for the home team in the mud and against Madison’s defense.
An interception stopped Westlake’s next drive, then the Rams held the Demons to under 30 net yards on their next three possessions of the half. Paul had one carry for four yards, while Shawn Turk and Danny Strodtbeck managed five and two yards, respectively.
“They were pretty solid,” Campo admitted. “They loaded up the box and wanted us to throw the football. That was tough sledding. But again, we battled, made some plays and still had our chances right until the end.”
Westlake took the second half kickoff and drove to the Madison 49-yard line. But Fix intercepted an Axcell pass on a diving attempt at a muddy 36-yard line to end that possession. Madison went on to run the ball down to the Demon 17, but Alex Massaad came up with a big defensive play when he tipped away a pass on fourth down and six.
Westlake remained in the lead until early in the fourth quarter when a short punt gave the Rams optimum field position at the Demon 35. Five plays later, Kalvin Cooper took Smith’s handoff off left tackle, then cut back right for a 15-yard touchdown run.
Fix added the kick, and the game was tied 7-7 with 9:20 left in regulation.
Westlake followed up with a three and out, but defensively held the Rams on their next series to get the ball back with 1:33 remaining. The Demons moved the ball from their own 32 to the Madison 27, with a Paul 15-yard run and an 11-yard gain by Axcell brining the partisan home crowd to it’s collective feet.
But in the final seconds of regulation, a penalty and three straight incomplete passes sent the game into overtime.
“They line up with their big front and they try to wear you down,” Campo explained. “They get three or four yards a pop, and then they bust one. But I thought out defense hung tough all night. They were out there a lot, but they made them earn everything they got.
“I’m proud of the way they played, and I’m proud of the way our offense fought. I mean, our kids fought all the way to end andcame up, what, maybe a half yard short of playing a little bit longer here tonight.”
Campo said it would be hard to see his seniors leave the program after what they had helped the team accomplish this season.
“This is a special goup of kids,” Campo said. “They have a special bond with each other. They truly led this program in all the right ways, ways that any coach would want their seniors to lead. They worked hard, they got better and fought every game like they did tonight, no matter what the circumstances were.
“Like I said, they’re a special group of kids. And I’m priviledged to have been able to coach them,” he added.
Campo went on to commend his entire team on what they accomplished in a season that pumped significant life back into the program.
“You know, when you get a group like this you obviously don’t want to see the season end. They’re a great goup to work with. I hurt for them because they wanted to keep playing, and I wanted to keep working with them because it’s a lot of fun.
“They did a great job representing our football program, representing our school and representing our community. And they absolutely put this program back on the map,” he concluded.