Story by Jim Horvath
Photos by David Richard
Ground Hogs Day. Deja vu. Recurring nightmares.
These days, they're all the same for the Lakewood Rangers football team.
For the sixth time in seven games, the Rangers found themselves in a position to win the football game. But for the third-straight game, they fell short as Elyria Catholic made some big plays in the final minutes Friday night to beat Lakewood, 41-31, in a West Shore Conference game at Knights of Columbus Field.
"A play here, and a play there. That's the difference between us winning and losing the last three games," said Lakewood head coach Mike Ribar, whose team lost its fourth straight game and fell to 2-5 on the season.
"That's the difference between a team that knows how to win and a team that's learning how to win," Ribar said. "That's where we're at right now. We know that. Our kids keep on fighting. We were down 17 points a one point, and we could have laid down.
"I mean, we came in 2-4 and were coming off a not-so-great season last year. But our kids did not lay down, and that's all I've been asking for," he said.
Down 20-17 at halftime, Lakewood took the second-half kickoff and methodically drove 45 yards in just over eight minutes. But the drive stalled on a fourth down and two, and the Panthers pounced on the opportunity.
A 43-yard run from senior running back Justin Rankin had the home team in business at the Ranger 30-yard line. Two plays later, junior quarterback Jake Kuchta ran it in from seven yards out, and EC had upped its lead to 27-17 with 2:55 left in the third quarter.
A bad situation turned worse just seconds later as junior, Jack Witri, making his first varsity start for the Rangers, threw his second interception of the game. Three plays later, Rankin scored from 11 yards out to put the Panthers seemingly in the driver's seat, 34-17.
"It was his first varsity football game, so you know mistakes are going to happen along the way," Ribar said of his junior signal caller. "There are learning steps. We've got to learn from what we're doing and go forward.
"That's what tonight was for him. He's a junior, and he's going to be our guy next year. I mean, he led us to 31 points. That's the second-highest point total we've had this year," he said.
But as the fourth quarter got underway, the Rangers went back to work. Starting at their own 36, they marched 64 yards in 10 plays. A roughing the passer call on EC. an 11-yard run from junior running back Quentin Hill and a 15-yard pass play from Witri to senior wideout Joe Malone set up the score.
Hill, on second down and one, bulled in for the score with 8:56 left in the game. Senior Kyle Moran made the kick, and the Rangers were back in the game at 34-24.
The Panthers failed to get a first down on their next possession, and the Rangers took over on their own 40 with 5:56 left. On the second play of the drive, Witri dropped back and threw a perfect spiral to Malone for a 60-yard touchdown play that put Lakewood right back in it at 34-31.
EC took over at its own 24 and immediately switched the momentum back in its favor. Kuchta dropped back and threw downfield to junior Cole Virgin, who was covered by not one, but two Ranger defenders. Virgin, at 6-2, still managed to catch the ball for a 36-yard gain down to the Ranger 40.
"It was a perfect throw," Ribar said. "As soon as he went to throw that ball, I said 'we got this one covered.' We had it covered, but we've got to make a play there. This game is all about making plays.
"That's not just high school football, that's college. That's the pros. It's about who goes up and makes the play. The kid is a nice receiver, and he had a couple of big plays early on too that made a difference for them," he said.
A 13-yard pass got the Panthers down to the 23, plus they also recovered their own fumble at the end of the play. A 13-yard scoring run by Rankin made it 41-31 with 2:47 left to play.
Lakewood had two more drives,but failed to score on both. The first one ended on Witri's third interception of the game. The second possession, after Witri hit Malone on a pass play down to the EC 8-yard line, failed to reach pay dirt as well in the game's final seconds.
"Again, we had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter," Ribar said. "In that regard, we're six out of seven.
"I feel like I'm starting to repeat myself every week. That's what I said to the boys too," Ribar said. "I'm getting tired of this. This meeting at the end of the game, it's the same meeting. We've got to get over that hump.
"The mistakes happen, because these are high school kids. We've just got to learn to get over them," he said.
There were no problems with Lakewood's running game. The Rangers ran for 210 yard on the night and were led by senior Mike Johnston, who carried the ball 23 times for 112 yards. Hill added another 77 yards on 15 carries.
Witri completed 10 of 20 passes for 131 yards, while Malone had four receptions for 90 yards. Michael Goolsby had six receptions for 41 yards.
"I don't want to lose, and neither does anybody else," Ribar said. "But these kids are playing football, and they're showing me they want to come out here and play.
"I'm going to ask them the same thing I've asked them the last three weeks. Get out here tomorrow morning at 8:30 to get ready to go to work for next week," Ribar said. "We've got some houses coming in the next three weeks in Brecksville, Midview and North Ridgeville, so it's not like we have a cake walk. We're going to have to step it up.
"If we show we can play with those guys, we will start winning games," he added.
(Follow us on Twitter @BeAFanatic, and be sure to check out and like our Facebook page: BeAFanatic.com.)