By Josh Brown
COVINGTON — At a glance, the 2014 Covington football team had a very up-and-down year, finishing with a 6-5 record — the least amount of victories for the team in a decade.
The Buccaneers — who watched a massive and talented senior class graduate the year before, but still got the chance to watch one member of it play on national television each week with A.J. Oullette having an outstanding freshman season at Ohio University — were already a very young team, and a string of injuries suffered in the middle of the season tested their depth and resolve even more.
Covington passed that test, though, fighting through mountains of adversity, finishing the regular season with a pair of victories and earning its 10th consecutive postseason berth in a season that came to an end at the hands of second-seeded Lehman in the first round of the Division VII, Region 26 playoffs.
Before the year began, Covington found out that it would be without its veteran starting quarterback for the season, as well as a couple more key returners. And throughout the course of the season, a total of eight more players would fall prey to season-ending injuries.
The team suffered its first setback on the field in Week 1, falling 34-7 to visiting St. Henry. The Buccs gutted out a 14-7 victory over Arcanum the following week — one of three key victories on the season against teams that finished with .500 records — and went on to win the next three straight over Mississinawa Valley, Bethel and Cincinnati College Prep.
The Bethel victory, in particular, was a big one during that stretch. The Bees entered that game 3-0, while Covington was 2-1 at that point. But the Buccs dominated time of possession, holding onto the football for a whopping 37:47 to Bethel’s 10:13 on the night, rolling to a 41-7 victory.
“The kids did a good job tonight, played hard and kept coming,” Covington coach Dave Miller said. “That (time of possession) is what we preach and what we shoot for. When everything is clicking, it’s a little easier to get that done.”
Covington outscored Bethel 20-0 in the second quarter to take a 27-7 lead at halftime, but the Bees drove the ball to the Buccs’ 10-yard line in the third quarter looking to get some momentum back. Brock Murphy tipped an interception to Lance Miller, though, and Covington embarked on a 13-play, 93-yard drive that carried them a third of the way through the fourth quarter, with Murphy capping it off with a 5-yard touchdown run to seal the game.
“That was a huge series,” Miller said. “It’s still a 27-7 game at that point and they’re driving on us. That was a huge play by Miller and the defense, and then a great drive by the offense.”
The Buccs followed that win with a 40-0 shutout of Cincinnati College Prep, which also finished the season 5-5 — another critical computer points grab for late in the season.
It proved to be huge for Covington entering a brutal stretch, as the Buccs lost 36-6 to eventual Cross County Conference champion Tri-County North, lost 20-0 to CCC runner-up Miami East and lost 41-14 to Twin Valley South over the next three weeks.
That put Covington on the outside of the playoff race looking in heading into a Week 9 showdown against National Trail, which brought a 5-3 record into the game. The Buccs, meanwhile, were starting 10 sophomores and two freshmen thanks to the rigors of the season and various injuries — and “gutted out” is an understatement in describing their crucial 24-14 victory.
“This is a great team win,” Miller said after the game. “Our kids have faced so much adversity this season, but their attitudes and effort have never wavered. That’s what carried us tonight.
“We came at them. That’s an offense that can put points up in a hurry, so you can’t let him (National Trail quarterback Garrett Griffin, who entered the game with 7,000-plus passing yards) sit back there and get comfortable. We put a lot of pressure on their quarterback. Our linebackers played very, very well tonight.”
The Buccs scored on the opening drive of the game with quarterback Nathan Blei hitting Branden Robinson on a 31-yard touchdown strike, and after the Blazers cut the lead to one at the half, Ethan Herron recovered a lobbing onside kick to start the second half on Trail’s 26-yard line.
“That was a huge play,” Miller said. “(Kicker) Branden (Robinson) got some elevation on the ball and Ethan just made a great play to get to the ball before it went out of bounds. That’s a heads-up play by a freshman.”
Murphy scored a 4-yard touchdown to widen the Buccs’ lead, and a 26-yard field goal by Blei made it 17-6. And in the fourth, Miller stripped the ball from a Blazer ballcarrier in the end zone to make it a 24-6 game with roughly five minutes left, and Covington held on from there.
And even after Covington’s 24-6 win over Ansonia in the final week of the regular season, the Buccs didn’t know whether or not they’d qualify for the playoffs. They left the field knowing that they’d done everything they could, though, that they’d battled through more adversity than they imagined possible at the season’s outset.
“I’ve never seen a Covington team this young and have so many injuries. The fact that we are even in the discussion (for the playoffs) is unbelievable considering everything this team has been through,” a Covington fan was overheard saying on the sidelines after the Ansonia game. “That man (coach Miller) is the reason why we’re even talking playoffs right now.”
And that talk became reality. Riverside lost its Week 10 game to Fort Loramie 22-21 and dropped to ninth in the standings, while Covington jumped all the way up to the No. 7 seed, with Triad sitting in eighth. That jump was a big one, too — No. 8 was destined to face Marion Local, the eventual unchallenged state champion, in the first round.
That set up a playoff game at No. 2 Lehman, which finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak. The young Covington team simply couldn’t keep pace, though, as the Cavaliers rode a string of big plays to a 28-0 lead at the half and won 41-7.
Still, all of the adversity the Buccs faced in 2014 will only make them better entering this season. With a year of experience under their belts, look for Covington to improve even more — no matter what is thrown its way.
“We have a young, talented team coming back next year,” Miller said after the loss to Lehman. “They learned a lot from this year, and it is going to benefit them. But we are going to miss the four seniors.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.