CORRY - Just over a decade since its last postseason victory, Warren is again a postseason winner.
The Dragons (9-2) shook off a sluggish first quarter, scored twice in the second quarter and held off a pesky Conneaut team for a 21-12 victory in the District 10 Class AAA Quarterfinals Friday at Corry Area High School.
With the win, the Dragons advance to the D-10 semifinals where Cathedral Prep - the PIAA's top-ranked Class AAA team - awaits. The game will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, but the location and venue of the contest have not yet been announced.
Times Observer photo by Jonathan McAfoos
Warren's Brad Walters jumps in front of Conneaut receiver Brennen Miller to break up a pass in the end zone during the first half of a District 10 Class AAA quarterfinal playoff game on Friday night at Corry High School. The Dragons won their first playoff game in 10 years, defeating the Eagles, 21-12.
Friday was all about the Dragons and accomplishing something that the school hadn't seen conquered in over 10 years.
"This is a win that these guys are always going to remember," said Warren coach Brad Wright. "I said going into the game that a win would help cement the legacy of this group of players. I honestly think they will go down as one of the best groups ever to play at Warren."
Senior tight end Mark Davis - who hauled in two touchdown passes in Friday's win - hopes that the victory over Conneaut was just the beginning.
"This is a win that these guys are always going to remember... I honestly think they will go down as one of the best groups ever to play at Warren."
Warren head coach Brad Wright
"No matter what it looked like, it's the school's first playoff win since 2002," said Davis. "I think you're going to see a different brand of Warren football in the years to come. Hopefully this is the win that makes future Warren teams expect to win in the postseason."
Disposing of Conneaut (6-5) - a school that played against only one other Class AAA school all regular season - proved to be no easy task.
Despite driving all the way to the Conneaut 18 at one point in the opening quarter, Warren's offense struggled to get on track and the opening period was played to a scoreless tie.
Quarterback Austin Jerman said that despite being shut out during the opening 12 minutes, the offense - that averaged nearly 45 points a game this season - never became frustrated.
"We had been game planning all week for a lot of different blitz packages and they switched up what we were expecting early on," said Jerman. "We just kept plowing forward. We made some adjustments, trusted our coaches and were able to get something going in the second quarter."
Wright also credited his staff's adjustments with helping to jump start the Warren offense in the second quarter.
"We knew coming in that they weren't going to let Austin pick them apart," he said. "I think we were a little rattled by their pressure early on, but we made some adjustments and had success with them."
After an outstanding punt return by Jordan Willetts late in the first quarter, Warren started its third drive of the contest at the Eagles 28. On the first play of the second quarter, Warren broke into the scoring column when Jerman hit Davis with a 13-yard touchdown pass. On the play, Jerman surpassed the 4,000 career passing yards mark, extending his record as the school's all-time leading passer.
Ryan Shattuck's extra point gave Warren a 7-0 cushion with 11:56 to play in the opening half.
The Eagles refused to let Warren get too far ahead and played the field position game to perfection later in the quarter. After stopping Warren inside its own 10, Conneaut got a nifty punt return from Hunter Merritt and the Eagles set up shop at the Dragons 35.
Six plays later, 1,000-yard tailback Elijah Anderton pounded his way into the end zone from one yard out to make it 7-6. The extra point try failed, allowing the Dragons to maintain the lead.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came just 11 seconds later.
After recovering a Conneaut onside kick attempt at midfield, Jerman and Willetts executed an option play to perfection, allowing Willetts to race 50 yards for the touchdown, making it 14-6 Warren with 4:10 left in the first half.
"Austin knows how to read the defense so well and he made a great decision to hand the ball off," said Willetts, a senior. "From there, I just found a lane, got some blocks and just kept seeing the end zone getting closer."
On the postseason victory, Willets added, "It's surreal, just very exciting. Going from 2-8 last year to 9-2 this year is just amazing. I couldn't ask for more as a senior on this team."
The Eagles threatened to cut into the Warren lead before halftime, but Willetts again came up with a key play. Willetts intercepted a Merritt pass in the end zone and almost took it the distance with no time remaining on the first half clock. The speedster came up one block short of making it a two-score game at intermission.
The Dragons received the second half kickoff, but were quickly forced to punt and it was Conneaut who delivered the first blow of the second half.
First, Merritt broke free for a 50-yard run and then, with 7:14 left in the third quarter, Merritt hit wideout Brennen Miller with an 11-yard touchdown pass that made it 14-12. The Eagles went for two and would have tied the score had it not been for the brilliant pass defense of Luke Wortman who swatted the ball away from the would be Conneaut receiver.
Instead of allowing the Eagles to maintain the momentum, Warren went to work on stealing it right back. Using a methodical 10-play, five-minute drive, the Dragons soon extended the lead to 21-12 when Jerman connected with Davis for a 15-yard touchdown pass with 2:49 left in the third.
The touchdown drive nearly never happened. Conneaut had appeared to have forced a fourth down early in the drive only to be called for a roughing the passer call on Jerman. The penalty - one of 10 against Conneaut - allowed the drive to continue and ended with Warren's third score of the night.
Both teams were able to move the ball in the fourth quarter, but each defense stiffened when called upon. The Dragons were able to chew up large portions of the final 12 minutes by effectively running the ball with Matt Falvo and Jerman.
Jerman finished 11 of 16 for 129 yards with two touchdowns. Willetts and Cody McGraw each caught three passes and Falvo paced the ground game with 90 yards on 16 carries.
Now that Conneaut is in the rearview, the Dragons can now turn their attention to the D-10 semifinals and the unbeaten Cathedral Prep Ramblers.
While admitting that Prep is a powerhouse, Wright said his team has to enter the game expecting nothing less than a victory.
"We need to remain upbeat and positive this week," said Wright. "We have nothing to lose against Prep. We need to play at our best and go in there and expect to be successful."
W- Mark Davis 13 pass from Austin Jerman, 11:56, Ryan Shattuck kick
C- Elijah Anderton 1 run, 4:21, kick failed
W- Jordan Willetts 50 run, 4:10, Shattuck kick
C- Brennen Miller 11 pass from Hunter Merritt, 7:14, pass failed
W- Davis 15 pass from Jerman, 2:49, Shattuck kick
RUSHING-C- Hunter Merritt 21 for 125, Elijah Anderton 16 for 50, TD, Jon Onderko 1 for 2, Tyler Bartlett 2 for -1; W- Matt Falvo 16 for 90, Willetts 1 for 50, TD, Jerman 11 for 16, Luke Wortman 2 for 16, Chris McNeal 1 for -3
PASSING-C- Merritt 4 of 10 for 36, TD, INT, Onderko 1 of 2 for 15, Bartlett 1 of 1 for 9 W- Jerman 11 of 16 for 129, 2 TD
RECEIVING-C- Brennen Miller 2 for 26, TD, Conner Overman 2 for 19, Chris Richardson 1 for 10, Anderton 1 for 5; W- Cody McGraw 3 for 37, Willetts 3 for 40, Mark Davis 2 for 28, TD, Falvo 2 for 11, Brad Walters 1 for 13