By Gary R. Rasberry
VAN WERT -- Friday night's fifth edition of the Van Wert County Hospital All-Star Football Game was just a friendly little competition as The Western Buckeye League looked to end a four-year dominance from the combined forces of the Midwest Athletic Conference and the Northwest Conference.
The end result was a repeat of the first four meetings as the Northwest Ohio team defeated the WBL 27-19 at Eggress Stadium in Van Wert.
It was an odd night where several flags by the officials were waved off and, for most of the third quarter, the scoreboard was down, leaving fans, and those in the press box, to wonder what was going on.
The NWO team used a strong defensive push in clutch situations, to keep the WBL from doing much damage in the second half.
"It was a physical game," said NWO head coach Tim Goodwin of Marion Local. "Our defense played very well. All their scores came, it seems from big plays. It's what you expect in a game like this." It was actually the WBL that jumped out first and made the first big play in its offensive first series. With the ball resting on the WBL 40, quarterback Austin Keel of Defiance handed the ball to Tristan Kelley (of Shawnee), who then handed off to receiver D.J. Underwood. Underwood, who played some quarterback last season for Kenton, stopped and fired the ball downfield. Defiance's L.J. Helton beat his defender deep for the 60-yard score just two minutes into the game.
"Coach (St. Marys coach Doug Frye, who coached the WBL team) put the play in on Wednesday and he was (talking about) using it for the first play of the game," said Underwood. "I didn't throw the best ball that I could, because I'm not used to getting the handoff then throwing. I threw it up there and L.J. made a great catch."
"We throw the ball so often, I know all those passing routes," said a laughing Frye, whose St. Marys squad prefers to keep the ball on the ground.
Underwood's pass turned out to be the longest play from scrimmage for the WBL in the game. The NWO defense put pressure on the quarterbacks through the game as Keel and Bath's Kyle Mason combined for a 6-of-17 night for 97 yards. Mason was sacked five times in the game for a negative rushing total of minus 45 yards. Marion Local's Matt Prenger recorded 1 1/2 sacks as schoolmate Scott Garman had one, as did St. John's Josh Stant.
Mainly, the WBL kept it on the ground, preferably in the hands of Kelley. Kelley led all runners with 103 yards on 14 carries and scored a touchdown.
"I wish I could have gave it to Tristan more," said Frye, referring to the rule of having at least 40 percent of the plays being passing plays.
While the WBL dominated the running game, the NWO used a pair of MAC quarterbacks to go through the air.
Versailles's Kyle Gehle and St. John's Jesse Kill platooned perfectly through the game. Gehle got a little more playing time after Kill took a Nick Parr helmet to the arm in trying to throw. Gehle was 10-for-21 in the game for 175 yards and threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to St. John's Ryan Patton to put the NWO on the board in the first quarter. Kill, a threat to run in the option, was 7-of-10 for 75 yards and the winning score in the third quarter, a three-yard pass to Bluffton's Aaron Montgomery with 1:14 to go in the third quarter.
Gehle had a familiar target to throw to in Ben Shappie. Shappie led all players in the game with 84 yards receiving on five catches.
The NWO did finish with 125 yards rushing in the game. Crestview's Travis Owens led the team with 55 yards while Versailles teammates Ryan McNeilan and Gehle each had rushing touchdowns.
"It's hard to get a running game going in one of these games," said Goodwin. "There's not enough time to get the execution down. It comes down to an athlete making a play here or there. We had a few athletes out there and they had a few athletes."
Celina's Brian Gagle made several big plays in the game as a defensive back for the WBL. After the NWO's first score, Gagle broke through the line and blocked the extra point of Crestview's Darcy Baxter. Gagle later took down Owens with an ear-popping tackle that had the WBL fans on their feet.
"I just thought it was a beautiful football all-star game. It turned out it was a beautiful night, got everyone's spirit ready for the football season and it was very entertaining," explained Gagle.
"It was very physical out there," said St. Marys linebacker Scott Vossler. "That's a good pair of conferences over there. We played our hearts out and we played well. When you have talent on both sides, it's going to come down to who makes the plays. They made one more than we did."