By Rob Kiser
SIDNEY — When the Lehman Catholic football team lost to Waynesfield-Goshen in week seven, it sent a shock wave through the NWCC.
The defending champions suddenly had one loss in conference play, a 4-3 overall record and two tough games to finish the season with in Lima Perry and Riverside.
But, the Cavaliers capped a three-week run to finish at 7-3 and assure themselves of a returning to the D-VII playoffs, along with being outright NWCC champions with a 21-7 win over Riverside Thursday night at Sidney Memorial Stadium.
And it came against a Riverside team, that came in 6-3, had clinched a playoff berth and wanted that same NWCC title.
“We just had a lot of guys that stepped up after the Goshen game,” Lehman Catholic senior quarterback Elliott Gilardi said.
And with 6:55 remaining Friday night and Lehman holding a 14-7 lead and taking over on its own 25, Gilardi directed Lehman on what would be a game-clinching drive.
On a night where big gains in the passing game were far-and-few between, he completed a nine-yard pass to Brendan O’Leary for a first down on third-and-six, and a five-yard pass to Bradly Haynes on second-and-four.
“We were looking to just keep moving the ball,” Gilardi said. “We were looking to throw deep, but it wasn’t there.”
That set up Lehman with a first down on its own 49 and Gilardi did what Gilardi does. He rolled left, saw a crease and went the distance for a 51-yard touchdown run, diving into the end zone. It was similar to a 52-yard run on his first carry of the game with one difference. He got tackled on the two on that one.
“That’s why I dove,” Gilardi said. “I was making sure I scored this time.”
Michael Denning’s kick made it 21-7 with 4:22 remaining and for all intents and purposes, the NWCCC title was the Cavaliers.
“He (Elliott Gilardi) does make big plays,” Lehman coach Richard Roll said. “You know, early in the year, Elliott was struggling with it a little bit. Because, he didn’t have all those senior leaders around him and now, he was one of those seniors.”
The Lehman defense took care of the rest.
On the first play after the kickoff, Riverside quarterback Joel Cotterman couldn’t find the handle on the shotgun snap and Lehman’s Nick Largent fell on the ball to give the ball back to the Cavaliers at the Riverside 34,
“Nick (Largent) is one of our seniors,” Roll said. “He is really an unheralded player. He made a big play for us.”
The running of Tyler Sollmann pounded the ball inside the 10, before Lehman turned the ball over on downs.
Three plays later, Gilardi intercepted a pass, then took a knee twice to finish off the win.
“The Goshen game, that was a really a wakeup call,” Roll said. “In the long run, it probably benefitted us. We really didn’t have a good week of practice that week. This week, I didn’t want to say I told you so to the players.”
Lehman got off to a fast start when Gilardi had the 52-yard run on the second play and short-yardage specialist Logan Bunker bulled his way into the end zone. Denning’s kick made it 7-0 with 10:33 remaining in the first quarter.
It remained that way until Riverside had a 10-play, 73-yard drive in the second quarter.
Cotterman completed a 17-yard pass to Ollie Jacobs and Luke Roby ran 29 yards on the next play for the score. Conor Osborne’s kick made it 7-7 with 5:07 remaining in the first half.
Lehman immediately answered to take a 14-7 lead to the locker room.
The Cavaliers went 57-yard on nine carries.
Sollmann had a 20-yard run on the drive and Gilardi connected with Sollman for 10-yards to give Lehman a first-and-goal on the three.
Bunker (6-1, 215) who is an offensive lineman/defensive lineman, bulled his way into the end zone on the next play and Denning’s kick made it 14-7 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half.
“He (Logan Bunker) is just a stud,” Roll said.
On Riverside’s second possession of the third quarter, Riverside put together a 14-play drive that started on its own 14.
But, Ethan Knapke stripped a runner of the ball and Drew Barhorst recovered the fumble at the Riverside 30.
Lehman was unable to score, but on Riverside’s next possession, the Pirates had a third and seven from their own 47.
Bunker broke through to sack Cotterman for a six-yard loss to force the punt that lead to Lehman’s game-clinching drive.
“We did a lot of good things out there tonight on both sides of the ball,” Roll said.
Unofficially, Gilardi had 116 yards on 12 carries and completed nine of 12 passes for 46 yards. Sollmann added 88 yards on 16 carries.
Cotterman was five of eight passing for 58 yards, while Roby finished with 76 yards on 17 carries.
Now, both teams await to see who they will open the playoffs against a week from Saturday.
“We will enjoy this one for a couple days,” Gilardi said. “Then, we will get to work.”
The Cavaliers have earned it after finishing off another NWCC title season.
Rob Kiser is Sports Editor for the Daily Call. He can be reached at (937) 451-3334.