Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
With the momentum turned in their favor, the Lakewood Rangers had a chance to salt the game away as the third quarter clock ticked away.
A goal line stand to close out the first half, along with 12 unanswered points in the third quarter, had the home team up 25-21. A second-straight win to open the 2014 season was within the Rangers' grasp.
North Olmsted, however, had other ideas.
The Eagles, behind the 191-yard rushing effort of sophomore Joshua Hofstetler, came up with some big plays of their own in the fourth quarter. When the final gun sounded, North Olmsted had rallied for a 35-25 win Friday night at First Federal Lakewood Stadium.
Hofstetler, making the start in place of the injured Ben Kurcsak, was a workhorse for the Eagles all night. He ran the ball 23 times and scored a pair of touchdowns, the second one coming on a 30-yard run to open the fourth quarter.
North Olmsted's defense delivered the other half of the comeback with 3:13 left in the game. That's when senior Brett Gibbons intercepted a Peyton Graham pass and returned it 13 yards for the clinching touchdown.
"Last week, we expected to run him a little more than we did," said North Olmsted head coach Tim Brediger of his young running back. "We had a little bit more success throwing the ball than we anticipated, so we didn't necessarily need to run him.
"With Benny banged up a bit, we went to him more tonight. I'll tell you what, he did a great job tonight. Number one, he held on to the football because Lakewood was rippin' and strippin.' He also made a lot of nice cuts off the inside zone.
"Offensively, he probably won the game for us. We didn't move it very well in the air. We had some wide-open targets that we overthrew, where as last week we hit those. That's where we have to execute a little better, he said.
Brediger also had praise for Gibbons, who also had a big play during Lakewood's previous drive in the fourth.
"He had made a great play on the series before that," Brediger said. "He had tipped a ball away on a slant on third down to force a punt. And then he comes up with that interception.
"He's a senior, and he's paid his dues in the weight room and the last two years playing scout team. He's just gotten better and better, and he steps up and makes two big plays in two straight series to helps win the game," he added.
But up to that point, it was Lakewood's game to win.
The Ranger defense had stopped the Eagles on a first and goal from inside the 1-yard line to close out the first half. Trailing 21-13, the Rangers took the second half kickoff and began anther own 25-yard line.
On the very first play, junior running back Michael Goolsby cut through a seam and raced up field. North Olmsted junior Ryan Coleman saved the touchdown, bringing the Ranger speedster down at the Eagle one. But on the next play, Graham ran the sneak for the score.
A bad snapped prevented a 2-point conversion play, but the Rangers had built on their momentum swing.
On their next series, the Rangers used 38 yards worth of rushing from junior back Quentin Hill to get down to the North Olmsted 7-yard line. On third down and four, Hill finished the drive with a 7-yard touchdown run with 4:40 left in the quarter. The conversion pass failed, but Lakewood had the lead at 25-21.
But from that point on, the North Olmsted defense stiffened to shut down the Lakewood running attack. The Rangers, who got over 100 yards from both Goolsby and Hill, managed just five net yards on the ground the rest of the game as North Olmsted began its comeback.
"We've got to make an adjustment there at the end of the third quarter and into the fourth," said Rangers head coach Mike Ribar, whose team fell to 1-1. "We had a chance to put the game away two times up four and with the ball.
"Those are the drives where you have to go down and figure out how to score. We played it a little too close to the vest, maybe. Our goal every day is to make sure at the end of the game we have a chance to win.
"I think maybe we played it a little too tight today," he said, referring to two-straight three and outs by the Ranger offense.
A Matt Starcovic punt return to the Lakewood 30 put the Eagles in business to start the fourth quarter. On the very first play, Hofstetler bulled through the Ranger defense for his 30-yard score that gave the lead back to the visitors. Max Becker added the conversion kick, and with 11:50 remaining North Olmsted led 28-25.
Lakewood had some opportunities down the stretch, the first coming on an Andrew Lesko interception that gave Lakewood the ball near midfield with 8:04 left. But the Ranger offense stalled on another three and out, giving the ball back with 6:22 remaining.
After Gibbons' interception return, Lakewood mounted one last drive. A Graham-to-Chris Massey pass play got the Rangers down to the Eagle 19. But on second down and 10, Kyle Wapshott picked off a Graham pass to seal the deal for North Olmsted.
North Olmsted struggled for a stretch offensively, going to the air with junior quarterback Christian Ammons. While the strategy didn't result in any points for the Eagles, it did pave the way for more Hofstetler yardage, according to Ribar.
"Their passing game opened up their running game," Ribar said. "That's what happened there. Now we've got to switch our defense around to stop the pass, and it opens up things for their running back.
"We knew that though. We were prepared for what they had coming at us. We tried a few different wrinkles this week offensively that we didn't do last week, and you can see that made a difference for us. We scored four touchdowns, and in high school football, four touchdowns should do it."
Ribar admitted the interception return, along with Starcovic's 36-yard punt return in the first quarter, were the difference in the game.
"We gave them two, if you look at it, with the punt return and the interception," he said.
"It's part of the game there at the end when you're doing things to try and win it. It happens. So that's two non-defensive touchdowns, and we lose the game by 10. So you go back, look at that see what you need to fix.
"With 3:30 left on the clock, we wanted to have the chance to go down the field and win the game. We had a chance, it just didn't happen tonight," he added.
Brediger, whose team is now 2-0, said Lakewood definitely made it tough on his Eagles in the third quarter.
"In the third quarter, Lakewood came right out and punched us in the mouth," he said. "But our kids kept fighting. Our defense really stepped up at the end of the third quarter and all through the fourth. We made a lot of big plays.
"I'll tell you what: Lakewood is going in the right direction. Those kids played tough tonight. They have some nice athletes, and they're going to win some football games," he added.
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