Story by Jim Horvath
Photos by NEOSPORTSPIX
Video by Rob Trautman of RRT Productions
The old scoreboard at Westlake's Lou Duchez Field never would have survived. The new one got quite a workout.
After over 47 minutes of a back-and-forth offensive explosion from both teams, Friday night's football game between Westlake and Rocky River came down to one final play. With the Pirates trailing by one, they decided to go for the win and lined up for a 2-point conversion play. It was a virtual student body right, with junior quarterback Matt Lowry tucking the ball under his arm, looking for blockers.
All he found was Kent Axcell.
The Westlake senior stepped up into a gap and stopped Lowry short of the goal line. With just 32.1 seconds left, there would be no more scoring. Axcell's tackle had preserved the Demons' thrilling 56-55 win in what will certainly go down as one of the most memorable games ever played between the two longtime rivals.
"Everybody knew we were going for two," said Pirates head coach Rick Adams, whose team fell to 3-4 overall. "We could have rolled the dice in overtime, but they have a pretty accurate kicker. That was a factor, but bottom line is you have to execute.
"We had a play called, but we didn't get it done," he said.
It was a dynamic ending to what had been an offensive donnybrook between the two teams, as well as a stellar performance for two particular players.
Lowry, who had been putting up staggering numbers all season long, did not disappoint. Unofficially, he ran the ball 33 times for 242 yards and four touchdowns, including the final score of the game with 34.2 seconds remaining. He also completed 20 of 35 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown, that a 27-yarder to Pat Connors for the first score of the game.
For Westlake, the man of the hour was running back JaQuan Hardy.
The 5-8, 175 sophomore had a career night that began on the Demons' first offensive series of the game. Down 7-0, Westlake went to Hardy five straight plays, and he responded with 66 yards rushing and an 11-yard touchdown run that knotted the game at 7-7. In the first half alone, he ran the ball 11 times for 182 yards, with touchdown runs of 53, 8, 12 and 38 yards.
Hardy added two more scores in the second half from 13 and three yards out. He finished the night with 21 carries for 249 yards and seven touchdowns. The 3-yarder came with 4:12 left in the game, with Dakota Swisher's conversion kick giving the Demons a 56-49 lead.
"Let me first give a ton of credit to No. 7," said Westlake head coach Mark Campo of River's junior signal caller.
"He's a challenge with the ball in his hand. He's such a weapon, and he's hard to defend," he said. "I mean, we had them in some third and long, fourth and long situations where we should have made plays. But we had some lapses and some poor tackling, and they made plays. No. 7 made plays, or his receivers made plays.
"We definitely had some chances to get some stops, but we didn't execute. It was bad on our part, but then again they made some plays. They're not a shabby offense by any means. They're dangerous," he added.
Campo's attention then shifted over to his young running back.
"We told him all week that we were going to go with him, that it was time for him to grow up and take the next step," Campo said of Hardy's big night. "He's always run really well in practice, it just hasn't translated all the time in a game. But tonight, he was the real deal. He was everything - and more - that I could ever hope for.
"And our offensive line, you have to give them credit because they had to do some blocking up front. When they did, Quan just let his athleticism take over after that," he said.
Big plays were also the themes of the night, with the Demons getting one or two more that made a difference.
Late in the first quarter, Westlake blocked a Rocky River punt, with Will Clay recovering the ball at the Pirate 8-yard line. On the very next play, Hardy took it in to give the Demons a brief 21-14 lead.
With the score tied at 35-35 at halftime, fans were probably wondering what would happen next. The answer to that question didn't take long as senior Darrick Moore took the second-half kickoff and rambled 74 yards for a touchdown. Westlake would lead 49-42 heading into the fourth quarter, with a pair of key pass plays from Axcell to sophomore Nicholas Moracz fueling the Demons' final scoring drive.
"Kent made some big plays with his legs, and then he made some big throws, especially to our sophomore Moracz," said Campo, whose team climbed back over the .500 mark at 4-4. "He made two big catches, the one down the middle and then the one over his head where he leaped up and somehow pulled it in.
"He had some good hops on that play. It was nice to see those kids like that come up and really make some plays for us tonight," he added.
Axcell finished the night with 58 yards rushing while completing four of six passes for 116 yards. His first one to Moracz was a 37-yarder, and the second went 15 yards along the sidelines to the River 13-yard line. Six plays later, Hardy scored the go-ahead touchdown.
For Rocky River, junior Travis Smith had a big night as well, churning out 58 hard-earned yards on the ground and scoring three touchdowns of his own. Still, Adams could only wonder what could have been with a few defensive stops.
"You score 55 points, you should win the ballgame," he said. "I have to do something to get them to play better.
"We're scoring 55 points, and we have the same kids playing on offense that we have playing defense. The performance that we're getting on offense, we're not getting on defense. We have to find something that's going to get them to click, to play better. It's our job to put these guys in a position to do that, and obviously at this point we're not doing it.
"We gave up the blocked punt, and I should have called a timeout on that one," Adams said. "Then we give up the kickoff return. Those are little things, two touchdowns that we could have potentially kept off the board. We've just got to play better."
Adams also felt effort on the defensive side of the ball was not the Pirates' problem.
"No one is questioning the effort. We are giving effort," he said. "We just have to step it up another notch. We need guys to step up another level to make a play. We don't have that dynamic playmaker on defense yet, so we need to find that guy.
"We thought if we got one stop on defense, that would be it, that we'd be able to go down and score. Obviously, that didn't happen. From an offensive standpoint, we think we can score every time. Now we have a helluva test next week with Avon, so we've got to figure it out. We've got to keep working hard," he added.
The Pirates will travel to undefeated Avon next Friday night in West Shore Conference action. Westlake will be on the road as well to take on Berea-Midpark in a Southwestern Conference game.
(You can follow NEOSPORTSPIX on Twitter @BayLightStudio. Follow Rob Trautman @RRTProductions, and our website @BeAFanatic)
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