ETNA – For the second straight year, two schools separated by 112 miles met for a postseason battle with everything on the line.
Northmor (10-2), the KMAC runner-up hailing from Galion, faced Fort Frye (11-0), the undefeated powerhouse from Beverly, located less than a half hour from West Virginia in the southeast corner of the state.
These are two schools and towns that would otherwise share little to no association, if not for the mixed fate of OHSAA regional diagramming and parallel gridiron success. But here they were, squaring off yet again in the Division VI Region 23 playoffs.
This time, the stakes were higher; last year, it was a first round matchup, and this year it was a regional semifinal. The game was also at a neutral site this year – Watkins Memorial High School in Licking County – as opposed to Fort Frye’s home field last fall.
While the conditions changed from last year, however, the result did not.
Northmor’s season once again ended at the hands of Fort Frye on Friday night, as the second-seeded Cadets ran away from the third-seeded Knights, 41-23.
Unlike last year’s game, which Fort Frye won 6-0 on a last-minute score, Friday’s matchup was high-octane and considerably less dramatic. A brutal wind swept across the neutral turf field all night long – sometimes carrying snow, rain, or a sleet-based combination with it – as temperatures dipped into the mid-30s after kickoff.
The Knights and Cadets traded punches during the first half of play, as Fort Frye led 14-8 going into the locker room. But on the first possession of the second half, everything changed.
The Northmor defense had just stopped Fort Frye on third down, as the Cadets were held to four yards when they needed eight. They were forced to punt and junior Isiah Jones stood deep in his own territory to do the deed.
Only when the snap hit Jones’ frozen fingers, he bobbled it, just long enough for Northmor’s defensive front to reach the backfield. When Jones looked up, he knew he was in trouble.
With no time left to kick, he took off running.
He darted towards the Fort Frye sideline, evading the first level of defenders and finding nothing but green ahead of him until he was forced out of bounds at the Northmor 46-yard line. It was a 15-yard carry on fourth down, which kept the Cadet drive alive. As the Fort Frye stands erupted in serendipitous joy, the Northmor sideline let out a collective, ‘Are you kidding me?’
Having sucked the life out of Northmor’s previously airtight defense, Fort Frye used bite-sized rushes to advance the ball deep into Knight territory. The Northmor defense softened with every blow, and all-state quarterback Tate Engle eventually lunged into the end zone from one yard out to stretch the Cadet lead to 20-8.
Including the fake punt that wasn’t really fake – Fort Frye head coach Eric Huck called the play “luck” afterwards, although he said the Cadets do practice blown-punt situations – Fort Frye had methodically completed an 80-yard drive that took up the first 7:18 of the second half.
At that point, down by two scores, desperation started to set in for the Golden Knights.
“I mean, that swung the momentum right there,” Northmor head coach Scott Armrose said. “We had them stopped to start the second half and (if) we get the ball back and go down and score right there, it’s a whole different football game probably. So that was a huge momentum swing.”
Northmor was forced to punt on its next possession after suffering a delay of game penalty on fourth-and-two. Fort Frye then began another torturous march towards the end zone, beginning with 3:14 left in the third quarter. The 57-yard drive stretched into the fourth quarter and bit off another 4:27 of game clock, concluding with a 13-yard touchdown sprint from Cadet junior tailback Zane Greenleaf.
With just over 10 minutes remaining, Fort Frye held a 26-8 lead.
“It has a huge impact. It’s painful,” Armrose said of Fort Frye’s meticulous, time-consuming offensive style. “When you go three-and-out and then you just watch them drive 70 yards and take all that time off the clock, and you finally get the ball back and you’re excited to go and you go three-and-out again… it’s a frustrating night.”
Fort Frye’s running game proved to be effective all night long, not just as a time-killing method, but also from a simple x’s and o’s standpoint. The Cadets accumulated 331 of their 446 offensive yards on the ground, rotating four main backs to wear down Northmor’s defensive front.
Junior Tyler Fisher anchored the Fort Frye backfield with 107 yards on 19 carries (including two touchdowns), while senior Evan Schob recorded 22 carries for 106 yards. Sophomore Brian Adkins and Greenleaf tallied 65 and 22 rushing yards, respectively.
While the Cadets’ offense also features Engle, who threw for 228 yards in their first-round win last week (and threw for over 1,300 yards last season), the senior used his arm sparingly on Friday night.
Engle completed seven of his 13 passes for 135 yards. He threw a touchdown and an interception. But he mainly served as a field general, conducting the arduous Fort Frye attack that sucked up over 32 minutes of game clock (Northmor’s offense spent just 14 minutes on the field).
With less than 10 minutes left in the game, Engle got to flash his throwing arm with a strike to Adkins, who snagged the pigskin and ran 58 yards down the Fort Frye sideline to the end zone. Engle finished with three touchdowns total – two goal-line plunges and one through the air.
“We’re a run-the-ball-first offense, and Tate knows that. But he’s a heck of a quarterback, so when we really feel like the defense is sucking up too much, we like to hit them over the top, like we got on that big touchdown there in the second half,” Huck said.
“You know, Tate knows what to expect. He sees things before they happen, he’s a heck of a football player. But we have all kinds of weapons, you know, with Tyler Fisher and (Evan) Schob and Tate and Brian Adkins and Zane Greenleaf… it’s hard to stop them all.”
Armrose said after the game that ultimately, it came down to physicality on Friday night. He said his team was “outmatched up front,” which led to offensive issues, such as leading rusher Conor Becker mustering just 64 yards on 16 carries (he’d averaged 188 yards per game heading into Week 12). Becker scored only once, on a one-yard touchdown rush during Northmor’s first offensive possession of the night.
“They were big and strong,” Armrose said. “It’s hard to do anything consistently when you’re outmatched up front, and we were outmatched up front tonight.”
Huck said the gameplan was to "key in" on Becker all night, and the defense did just that.
“That was a big part of it,” Huck said. “We were really focused on stopping Becker.”
The Knights were led by junior quarterback Hunter Mariotti, who threw 12-of-19 for 154 yards and two touchdowns. Becker caught three passes for 54 yards, while junior Gavin Ramos hauled in four passes for 54 yards. The Knights’ last score of the season came on a Mariotti pass to senior Cole Dille, who collected a 19-yard lazer in the corner of the end zone with 2:51 left, setting the final deficit at 18 points.
Seven senior Knights walked off the field for the final time on Friday night, including key playmakers such as Dille, Chris Bood and Tony Martinez.
It marked the end of a long, winding journey for the seniors who chose to stick with it. Through their first two years of high school, the team went 3-17. Over the last two years, since Armrose took over as head coach, the Knights went 18-5 and made history, earning the program’s first playoff appearance in 2017 and first playoff win in 2018. This year, the Knights also set the program record for wins in a season.
“These seniors have, to be honest, taken a beating all the way up through, and they had very limited success until the last two seasons. And a lot of what we’ve been able to accomplish is because of them,” Armrose said. “I’m really proud of those guys.”
Fort Frye, which has made the playoffs four straight seasons but has never made it past the regional finals, will have another shot at doing so next week. Last year, the Cadets lost in overtime in the regional semifinals. Two years ago, they fell in the regional final to Newark Catholic.
Now, they sit one game away from a state semifinal berth.
“That was our goal, to make it to the regional finals,” Huck said. “We made it there two years ago and we came up a game short last year in overtime, so that’s definitely our goal and it’s something we’ve talked about all season. So to be here and to be playing still means a lot to us.”
When it was over on Friday night, Mariotti sat on the frostbitten turf, in front of the bench on Northmor’s sideline. His legs splayed out in front of him, he clutched his head in his hands and wept aloud.
For the second straight year, this time one week later than the last, Fort Frye had cut short the hopes and dreams of his team – one he’d taken from 1-9 his freshman year to double-digit wins as a junior.
In that moment, there was pain. There was grief. But luckily for Mariotti, he isn’t done yet. He has one more year, as does Becker, and Blake Miller, and the majority of Northmor’s core. They’ll likely be frontrunners in the KMAC next season, and they might even see Fort Frye again in the playoffs if the football gods see it fit.
Sitting in front of what seemed to be his entire hometown, which packed the visiting stands at Warrior Football Stadium on Friday night, Mariotti collected himself. With so much still in front of him, he removed his hands from his helmet and placed them on the turf.
As the final horn sounded, he rose to his feet. For Mariotti, Armrose and the budding Knights, the journey isn’t over.
In many ways, it’s just begun.