MARION – Years from now, people will ask about the 2019 East Knox Bulldogs.
They’ll see banners in the gym, or pictures in the hallway, and they’ll wonder how they did it. How they became the third East Knox team ever to record an undefeated regular season. How they erased a 20-point third-quarter deficit to win in the regional semifinals. How they advanced to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
GALLERY: East Knox vs. Carey (Div. VI Region 22 championship)
East Knox (13-0) defeated Carey (7-6) on Friday night, 32-21, in the Div. VI Region 22 title game at Marion Harding's Ohio Health Field. The Bulldogs will face New Middletown Springfield (13-0) next Friday in the state semifinals.
Those who witnessed what happened on Friday night in Marion will be able to tell them – about the 21-7 third-quarter hole, about the timely offensive explosion, about the goal line stand that left Carey stunned.
They’ll be able to recall the final score – 32-21 – because when a team like this wins a game like that, no one forgets.
“Coach has been saying all year, ‘How do you want to be remembered? What’s your legacy gonna be?’” senior Dawson David said after the regional final victory. “We wanted to have the best season in East Knox history and we accomplished that.”
It didn’t come easy, however. Much like last week’s come-from-behind victory, East Knox (13-0) found itself in a hole midway through the third quarter.
Carey (7-6) took a 21-7 lead after marching 65 yards down the field on the opening drive of the second half, eating up nearly five minutes of clock and capitalizing on the momentum it had gained from a score late in the first half.
The East Knox sideline went silent. The purple-and-white crowd – which packed the stands and spilled over into the space between the bleachers and the fence – had no cowbells to ring, no feet to stomp. Two East Knox teams had made it to this stage before, but neither had advanced. The Bulldogs saw their shot at history slowly fading away.
Then, all of the sudden, a switch flipped.
Maybe it was a sense of desperation; maybe it was a strategic realization. Whatever it was, it worked.
Quarterback Kadden Lester, who had struggled to that point, found his first-team all-district touch. He lofted a ball over the middle of the defense, just over the head of a Carey linebacker and into the palms of fellow senior Caleb Gallwitz, who raced to the Blue Devil 21-yard-line. Lester connected again with wideout Weston Melick seconds later, firing a bullet in the seam for an easy touchdown.
21-14. The bleachers began to rumble.
Then the defense took the field, and took over the game. David sacked and stripped Carey quarterback Ethan Beringer near his own goal line. He delivered another big hit on third down, forcing the Blue Devils to punt from deep in their own end zone.
Gallwitz fielded the ball near midfield and took off. Finally able to explore the open field, the speedy Gallwitz juked and dashed his way to the Carey 8-yard-line. Two plays later, he ran the pigskin in from nine yards out, prancing into the end zone as the Bulldog sideline came to life.
21-20. Rumbling, mixed with a heavy dose of cowbell. Things were getting louder.
The next sequence took the roof off. Senior Gage Steinmetz intercepted Beringer on third down, tight-roping the sideline to haul in the pass. Three plays later, Lester found Gallwitz again – this time on a 62-yard bomb up the Carey sideline – and the human jackrabbit raced into the end zone untouched.
26-21. The stadium began to shake.
East Knox scored three times in seven minutes to end the third quarter. The feat was made more remarkable by the fact that Carey ran the ball nearly every down, which drained the clock. But at the rate East Knox was scoring, the clock had little say.
“We just kept chipping away, chipping away,” Bulldog coach Cody Reese said of the offensive attack, which went silent for almost two quarters before exploding in the third.
“The boys kept working hard and [that’s a] great defense, a great team in Carey, so they made it extremely difficult. But the boys never gave up, they kept working hard, kept believing, and we were able to get some plays there, and that was fantastic.”
The defense also came to life. Carey spent most of the first half dominating the line of scrimmage, using its Power-I option offense to run the ball down East Knox’s throat. But the Bulldogs put an end to it in the second half.
Backed up on its own three-yard-line, the East Knox defense made a goal-line stand midway through the fourth quarter. Tailback Reece Billock was stopped for a loss, then a hold on the Blue Devils moved the ball back to the 11. On fourth down, Beringer’s pass to Bryce Conti was broken up, and East Knox took over on downs.
The Bulldogs put the final nail in the coffin on their next drive, which lasted exactly 57 seconds. Lester bobbled a high shotgun snap deep in his own territory, but Gallwitz – already in the area for the impending hand-off – swooped in, caught the ball and took off.
Maybe the play’s dysfunction rattled Carey, but for the first time all night, Gallwitz was able to break free into the secondary. He stiff-armed some defenders and juked others, on his way to a 75-yard touchdown sprint that broke the game wide open.
32-21. Mayhem in Marion.
Steinmetz intercepted another Beringer pass on the next possession, and the celebration began for East Knox. Moments after the final horn, players hoisted the Div. VI Region 22 title trophy high in the sky, then ran over to the bleachers to hug their parents. The entire East Knox contingent gathered at midfield and assistant coach Andy Beatty (also a full-time pastor) led a community prayer.
Tears flowed; hugs were exchanged; pictures were taken.
History had been made.
“It feels unbelievable. I mean, this is literally all we’ve worked for, for as long as I can remember,” senior Treyton Slone said. “We’re the first team in East Knox history to go to the Final Four. It just feels amazing.”
East Knox finished the game having scored 25 unanswered points – not dissimilar to last week, when it scored the game’s final 21 points to beat Seneca East. Maybe Carey should have seen it coming.
“We’re a second-half team,” Lester said with a grin. “Bend don’t break.”
When the going got tough in the third quarter, East Knox didn’t fold. Instead, the Bulldogs dug in.
“We just pride ourselves on coming from no matter how far down we are, no matter how low the spirits are, just coming together as a team and fighting,” Slone said. “And that’s all we did tonight, we just fought.”
That mindset comes from experience, Reese said, particularly the heartbreak this team endured the last two seasons. East Knox finished one spot away from playoff contention the last two years, as the Bulldogs fell short in big games down the stretch. Reese believes his players have used those setbacks as motivation all season long.
“It sucks when you have nine months to think about the disappointment and what could have been and the game you should have won,” Reese said. “It’s like, when we get down, they get that feeling back and it’s what drives them to get over the top and keep winning.”
After rushing for just 46 yards in the first half, Gallwitz finished with 168 on Friday to lead East Knox. The senior scored four times – including once through the air – and averaged eight yards per carry. Lester threw 8-of-14 for 158 yards and two touchdowns.
Beringer did it all for Carey, as he tallied 122 passing yards and 98 rushing yards. He used his speed and strength to wear the East Knox defense down in the first half, but this approach became less effective as the game went on.
Despite dominating the second half, East Knox finished with only 10 more yards of total offense than Carey. The Blue Devils ran more plays and won the time-of-possession battle by a wide margin. It was the Bulldogs’ big-play offense that won out on Friday night.
“It’s like last week, the boys just decided to start playing,” Reese said of the second half. “We saw what they were giving us, their adjustments at halftime, and we were able to make some adjustments. We called the plays and the boys made the plays. It’s just like a switch flips, I can’t really explain it.”
East Knox will face New Middletown Springfield (13-0) next Friday in the state semifinals. The game’s location will be announced Sunday by the OHSAA.
But for now, the Bulldogs intend to let this one soak in.
Reese grew sentimental when talking about the character of his players, which he said was on full display during their gutsy second-half comeback on Friday night.
“That’s what that is – the character of who they are and what they’ve become,” Reese said of the run. “Just to see them grow into the young men that they are, refusing to ever give up and standing together… What they’ve done is bigger than football.
“The character they have is gonna lead them to be great men, great husbands, and that’s the most important thing. That’s why we coach. We hope they’ll take over that, and that’s why we’ve had the success we’ve had, because they’ve really bought into that.”
David called the experience Friday “unbelievable.” Both he and Slone thanked the crowd that drove an hour-plus to support the Bulldogs in sub-freezing temperatures.
“Our 12th man is amazing. I’ve never seen a community travel like this,” Slone said. “It just energizes us so much when it’s loud and they’re yelling, ringing the cowbells. It just gets us all fired up and we use it. It fuels us.”
East Knox will play its biggest game in program history next week. The Bulldogs will be playing for a trip to the state title game, played in front of thousands at Canton’s Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
But Slone said the team’s mindset won’t change heading into next week. The Bulldogs plan on sticking with what got them here.
“We’ve taken it one week at a time now for 13 weeks in a row and we’re 13-0,” he said. “So the Final Four is just a dream come true, but we ain’t done yet. We got more in store.”