Friday, November 25th, 2011
By Robb Hemmelgarn
2000 ML-DSJ battle a classic contest
Last Curtain Call
Probably no souls were at home in the Maria Stein area 11 years ago this week when the Marion Local Flyers shocked the high school football universe with their 24-20 state semi-final victory over the Delphos St. John's Blue Jays, but had they been, there is a excellent chance they could have heard the celebratory hoarse screams all the way from Findlay. The inconceivability of a St. John's slip-up wasn't so much questioning the Flyers' game plan or overall talent, but rather more about the fact that in 2000, even the most seasoned football fans wondered if the Blue Jays were ever again going to lose a high school football game.
"I covered that game and a lot of people were expecting St. John's to win solely because of their win streak - Marion Local was definitely viewed as an underdog," recalled Michelle Leppert, who was sports editor at the time for The Daily Standard. "We talked a lot about that game in the office during the week because it was such a big match up and because Marion Local had come close to winning the meeting during the regular season. The Flyers led that game until one of their players went down with a serious injury. After that, they just didn't play well before losing by 21 points."
Unscathed at 13-0 overall, the Blue Jays were Chuck Norris, Goliath, and Superman all meshed into one seemingly unbeatable football machine. For instance, their senior class had not lost a game in their high school careers and their 57-game winning streak was the best that the state of Ohio had seen in over seven decades of high school football. Despite weathering a head-coaching change midway through the incredible streak, St. John's didn't miss a beat, and in 2000 they pummeled opponents by nearly 30 points per game. Averaging more than 43 points per outing, their super-charged offense was steered by running back Zach Weber who, although he was 5-7 with his cleats on and weighed less than 150 pounds, was about as easy to catch as a greased rabbit on roller skates.
"The first time we played them, they gave us a run for it, and we knew our hands would be full playing them in the playoffs," commented Weber, who accumulated a mind-boggling 2,200 yards and 31 touchdowns to that point in the season, including six touchdowns and 267 yards against Marion Local in the regular season meeting. "We won by 21 points in the regular season, but they had an injury to a key player and it really took the wind out of their sails. It was much closer than the score indicated, and we knew facing them again would be a battle."
Although the Flyers were anything but a Cinderella team that particular year, the prospects of knocking St. John's from their throne was an vision that not many outside of coach Tim Goodwin's locker room even dreamed possible. At 12-1, the Flyers marched into the Division VI state semi-final game with underdog stamped all over them. They were headlined by the dynamic tandem of quarterback Mitch Knapke and wide receiver B.J. Wolters, who played pitch-and-catch for 24 touchdowns in 12 games.
The overflowing crowd at Donnell Stadium curiously gazed on as the Flyers took the contest's opening possession and methodically powered their way 79 yards in 13 plays before running back Greg Schulte bulled into the end zone from one yard out. St. John's countered with 13 straight points, but just before halftime Marion Local's kicker Bart Heckman pulled his team to within three points at 13-10 with a 22-yard field goal.
"It is weird because so long after the fact, I can still remember even the smallest details of my high school career all the way back to when I was a freshman," explained Weber who finished the game with 199 yards. "That game was really a complete blur though. I do remember at halftime that it was a close game and I had a really strange feeling - something just didn't feel right."
Three minutes into the third period, and just as optimism seared throughout the Flyer sidelines, St. John's interjected with a touch of reality when they widened their lead to 20-10 following an 18-yard touchdown pass by quarterback Craig Hershey. The Flyers rallied back to within three though, following Ryan Fleck's one-yard touchdown run with just under three minutes to play in the third quarter.
"No matter how many we got down in that game, I don't ever remember there being a sense of panic," commented Wolters, who tallied three catches for 57 yards in the battle. "I remember watching film the next week and when we trailed by ten, Coach Goodwin stopped the film and pointed out how 95 percent of teams in that same situation against St. John's would have packed it in. Honestly, that never even entered our minds at that point."
Midway through the last stanza, the Flyers retained possession, and the dramatics calmly fell into place. With the pigskin resting near midfield, Knapke secured the snap and tucked the ball into Schulte's mid-section, who in turn handed the ball to Wolters as he raced by. The puzzled Blue Jay defense bit on what they thought was a reverse just as Wolters applied the brakes and heaved his pass toward a wide-open Kevin Thobe, who hauled it in before turning and racing 57-yards for the go-ahead score.
"That ball seemed to hang up there forever," laughed Thobe, who finished the contest with three catches for 91 yards. "It was just sort of wobbling toward me, and I was picturing myself catching it and making the big play afterward. Thankfully, that's how it turned out."
The Flyers forced St. John's to punt a few moments later and smelling blood, they retained possession at their own ten-yard line. Knapke orchestrated an 80-yard drive, before it sputtered at the St. John's ten after a fumble. With just under two minutes to play, the gasping Blue Jays were giving a final opportunity. Needing nothing less than a touchdown, they managed to move as close as the 22-yard line before time ran out, and the Flyers deliriously rushed the field.
"I really don't remember whether we had run that play before or not," explained Goodwin. "Running a trick play like that is literally rolling the dice - sometimes it works out great, and sometimes it just sort of blows up in your face."
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