By Rob Kiser
ANSONIA — It was a “dream” scenario for Lehman Catholic football placekicker Michael Denning.
And, Lehman coach Richard Roll wasn’t about to deny him the opportunity — but he didn’t mind making him wait a little bit for it.
Denning drilled a 24-yard field goal with 27.6 seconds remaining to give Lehman its first lead of 29-28 at Ansonia Saturday in a D-VII, Region 28 playoff game and the Cavs held on for the victory.
Lehman, 7-4, will play 10-1 Fort Loramie in a second-round game at 7 p.m. Saturday at Piqua’s Alexander Stadium/Purk Field.
“I have always wanted to kick a game-winning field goal,” Denning said. “Now, to be able to do it to win a playoff game, that feels amazing.”
Lehman faced a fourth-and-inches at the Ansonia 7-yard line.
After a measurement to check the distance during a timeout, Roll sent the offense on the field — to simply try and draw Ansonia offsides. When that didn’t happen, he called another timeout and sent Denning out there.
“He (Michael Denning) has never been in that situation (a game-winning kick) before,” Roll said. “I knew that was something he probably really wanted.”
And after all that, he was perfect on a kick that probably would have been good from 40 yards.
“You know when you hit it,” Denning said. “My team probably iced me a little (he laughed as he said it), but I knew I could make it.”
Quarterback Elliott Gilardi, the holder, only had one thought.
“Make sure I get the ball down,” he said. “Michael (Denning) is a good kicker. We knew he would make it.”
It was some more Gilardi magic that gave Denning the opportunity to make the kick.
On second-and-two from the Ansonia 44, Gilardi was almost sacked, then straight armed one would be tackler from Ansonia. As he was about to run out of bounds, he spotted John Cianciolo wide open near the 20-yard line.
“I was just looking to make a play,” Gilardi said.
Cianciolo hauled it in and was tackled at the 16, to set up the field goal four plays later.
“I just knew I had to make a play,” Cianciolo said.
It was just final of so many big plays by both teams in an amazing game.
“What a play by Elliott (Gilardi) and what a catch,” Roll said.
But, it wasn’t quite over yet. After two kicks out of bounds (with Ansonia making Lehman re-kick), Ansonia took over on its 45 and completed several passes before the clock ran out.
And Roll, coaching against former college teammate Eugene Hoening, couldn’t have asked for anything better.
“The atmosphere here tonight was incredible,” Roll said. “A Division VII playoff game, this is what football is about. I just love this atmosphere.”
The game started as if Ansonia would be the one celebrating.
It was the Tigers balanced, steady running game against Lehman’s big-play offense. Ansonia rushed for 369 yards in the game.
“We didn’t do a good good job of stopping their running game the whole game,” Roll said. “Their bigs were better than Riverside’s, and I was expecting that coming into the game.”
Quarterback Hunter Buckingham had a one-yard TD run and Matthew Shook had a 28-yard TD run. Michael Hall kicked both PATs and Ansonia led 14-0 with 6:05 left in the half.
Facing a fourth-and-seven from the Ansonia 40, Roll decided to roll the dice.
Gilardi made it work, spotting an open RJ Bertini and lofting the ball perfectly as Bertini hauled it in for a 40-yard TD pass.
The PAT kick was wide, but the play got Lehman to within 14-6 at the half.
“That was huge,” Gilardi said. “That wasn’t what we had called at all. I saw him open and threw him the ball.”
Tyler Sollmann continued that momentum to start the second half.
On the third play, Sollman ran 56 yards for a TD. A pass for two failed, but Lehman was within 14-12.
Ansonia answered with a 74-yard drive.
Brock Shellhaas ran 33 yards on the first play and Reece Stammen would score from two-yards out. Hall’s kick made it 21-12.
Sollmann then converted a first-and-20 with a 46-yard run, Gilardi threw 21 yards to Bradly Haynes at the Tigers three and Sollmann ran it in on the next play. Denning’s kick made it 21-19 with 6:35 to go in the third quarter.
“He (Tyler Sollmann) had a phenomenal game,” Roll said. “He has gotten better and better every game.”
Both defenses then came up with a stop.
Lehman blocked a 27-yard field goal attempt, but Ansonia was able to force the Cavaliers to punt.
On a fourth-and-five from midfield, Devyn Sink ran 20 yards on a fake punt and Shook would run 25 yards for a touchdown. Hall’s kick made it 28-19 with 7:19 to play in the game.
Lehman put together a 72-yard drive.
Gilardi threw to Brendan O’Leary for 27 yards on the drive and after a pass interfence moved the ball to the 15, Gilardi turned the corner and dove to get to the pylon. Denning’s kick got Lehman within 28-26 with 5:25 remaining.
Then, the Lehman defense produced its first three-and-out of the game.
On three Tigers runs, Ansonia netted minus-three yards and Lehman got the ball back for the game-winning drive.
“There were so many big plays in this game,” Roll said.
Gilardi finished 14 of 19 for 186 yards, while O’Leary led the receivers with three catches for 57 yards. Sollmann rushed for 164 yards on 21 carries.
Shook led the Tigers rushing attack with 112 yards on 12 carries, while Shellhaas had 107 on 13 carries and Stammen added 76 on 20 carries.
And after all that, it came down to the right foot of Denning.
“It is the greatest feeling in the world,” Denning said about the game-winning kick.
And Roll made sure to give him the opportunity to experience it.
Rob Kiser is Sports Editor for the Daily Call. He can be reached at (937) 451-3334.