UTICA – For the first two-and-a-half quarters on Friday night, Fredericktown kept Utica at bay. The Freddies led 22-7 midway through the third quarter after beginning the second half with a demonstrative scoring drive.
But Utica clawed back – first on a 45-yard touchdown reception from Ethan Adams, then on a pick-six by linebacker Clayton Cummons – and all of the sudden, with 9:29 remaining at Redskin Stadium, the home team had the ball with a chance to take its first lead of the game.
The pressure was on for Fredericktown, a team that won just one game last season and came into Friday’s contest 0-2. The Freddies led the whole game; could they possibly let this one slip away?
Linebacker Gene Fitzpatrick had an answer.
As Utica quarterback Collin McCullough dropped back to pass from deep in his own territory, Fitzpatrick followed his eyes. He waited like a jaguar in the weeds, matching McCullough step-for-step. When the quarterback decided to hurl the ball toward the middle of Fredericktown’s secondary, Fitzpatrick moved in for the kill.
“It’s a play that we’ve ran all week, where we’re just working Oscar coverage. I saw it was a pass, I dropped back, and as soon as I saw him pass it, I knew that I was ready for it,” the junior said. “I caught it, was kind of like a deer in headlights, and I just ran with it.”
Fitzpatrick intercepted McCullough’s pass and ran it all the way to the Redskin 10-yard-line. The momentum Utica had built to that point? Zapped. The visiting sideline, smelling blood for the first time all season? Amped.
Fredericktown (1-2) scored on its next play from scrimmage, a 10-yard touchdown bolt by junior Mason Finnell, and the rest was history. The Freddies ended the game on a 20-0 run, earning a 42-20 victory over Utica (0-3).
“They responded tonight to some adversity and that’s what I really wanted to see, is how they responded to some of those different scenarios,” Fredericktown head coach Beau Wolford said of his team. “And ultimately, yeah, we would have loved to keep things going (during Utica’s late-game surge), but I think the end result was better for us because I got to see our guys, in a tough situation, rise above it.”
Friday marked Fredericktown’s first win since September 21, 2018, snapping a seven-game losing streak. Its 42 points were the most scored in a game under Wolford, who took over last year. The Freddies racked up 454 yards of total offense, including 331 on the ground.
“We needed it,” Fitzpatrick said of the win. “You know, both teams weren’t doing so well, and we just wanted it more. That feels great.”
Fredericktown came out swinging on Friday in its final non-conference game of the season. The Freddies, now a Wing-T program, went for the end zone on their first play from scrimmage. It was just that kind of night.
The visitors scored first on a 46-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Terry Fearn to wideout Kailin Horlacher. The receiver leapt over his defender to haul in the pass, then beat him down the sideline to score.
After Utica answered with a McCullough touchdown pass and an extra point, making it 8-7, the Freddies closed the half in style. Senior linebacker Alec Ziegman recovered a fumble on Utica’s 32-yard-line, which led to an 18-yard touchdown pass from Fearn to Finnell in the corner of the end zone with 18 seconds remaining, putting Fredericktown up 16-7. The Freddies came within one yard of scoring another touchdown before halftime after they recovered an onside kick.
The Fredericktown Marching Band got about two minutes into its first halftime tune when Mother Nature decided to steal the show. Lightning lit up the sky and thunder rattled in the distance. Per OHSAA rules, play must be suspended whenever lightning is witnessed or thunder is heard. Referees may resume play 30 minutes after the last occurrence.
Halftime lasted nearly two hours. Referees, coaches and athletic directors from both schools congregated near the sideline for much of this time, checking the radar and monitoring the sky. Eventually, it was determined play could resume at 10 p.m.
Despite the long wait, the Freddies picked up right where they left off coming out of the locker room. They marched down the field on their opening drive and scored on a Fearn QB sneak, as the senior plunged into the end zone to stretch the lead to 15.
Fitzpatrick said the team found the right balance of ‘loose’ and ‘focused’ during the long halftime break.
“Well, you know, we kind of screwed around a little bit like all teenagers, but we got right back to it,” he said. “We were all fired up. We were ready to end this thing and get it done.”
The Freddies would carry that mindset with them the rest of the night. Despite nearly losing the lead early in the fourth quarter, they roared back to score touchdowns on each of their final three possessions.
Finnell scored twice – once following the Fitzpatrick interception, then again on a 18-yard touchdown run, where he seemed to glide into the end zone. Corey Webb, the team’s most physical runner, bulldozed his way into the end zone from two yards out to put the final nail in the coffin.
Fredericktown featured five ball carriers on Friday night, all with four rushes or more. Finnell led the way with 98 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries. Fearn ran the ball 22 times, accumulating 92 yards and scoring once. Webb ran for 79 yards and one touchdown, junior Steven Tumbleson racked up 40 yards, and freshman Teegan Ruhl recorded 22 yards.
The Freddies had no problem penetrating the Utica defense, as Wolford and his staff mixed power-runs with counters to keep the Redskins guessing.
“They’re a physical running team,” Utica head coach Charles Rowley said. “They executed very well, quarterback’s a good runner. You know, he got outside of us a little bit, we lost some contain there at times on big plays. And their counter, we never stopped their counter. That was a very good play for them tonight. We just didn’t have an answer for it. So they executed their stuff and we knew what they were going to do, and they did it well.”
Fredericktown’s unstoppable running game freed up Fearn’s deep ball. The senior completed five passes for 87 yards on Friday, while also throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions.
On defense, Fredericktown was able to contain Utica’s balanced attack. The Redskins mustered just 161 yards of total offense, with 109 coming through the air.
The Freddies were active up front and in the secondary, forcing three key turnovers. Before Fitzpatrick’s interception, Fredericktown forced two fumbles – one in the second quarter, at the Utica 32, that led to a quick touchdown; and another in the third quarter, at the Fredericktown 9, which prevented a potential score.
Wolford credited his coaching staff for their defensive preparation this week.
“They put in long hours, man... They don’t balk for a second when I tell them we’re staying overtime, and our kids do the same,” Wolford said. “They’re workers.”
Rowley shook his head at his team’s missed opportunities on the offensive side of the ball.
“You can’t turn the ball over,” he said. “It’s hard to win a game with [three] turnovers.”
When it came down to it, Friday night was a battle of attrition. The temperature at kickoff was 90 degrees. Halftime lasted nearly two hours, and by the time the final horn sounded, it was 11:15 p.m. Neither team is deep; Fredericktown has 29 players (including 14 freshman), while Utica has 35.
But Fredericktown owned the final quarter. Why? It had to do with the team’s mindset, Fitzpatrick said.
"Our coach always preaches to us, ever since the season started, it’s all about ‘Finish, finish, finish,'" he said. "And I feel like this week it just clicked and we got it done.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Fredericktown will begin KMAC play next week at Cardington (0-3), while Utica will host Licking Valley (3-0). For Rowley’s club, next week will be another opportunity to break into the win column.
“We’ve just gotta keep getting better,” Rowley said. “Those things happen, you know, next-play mentality. Just keep going and keep fighting.”
For Wolford, next week will be a return to his former home. Wolford coached for four seasons at Cardington before taking the head spot at Fredericktown last fall. After taking a loss to the Pirates last year, Wolford said his team knows "that’s a game I want.”
“I know Cardington’s had their rough start here, but they’ve always got tough kids, so we’ve gotta make sure that we’re ready to go,” Wolford said.
Fitzpatrick hopes Friday’s win will prompt a “snowball effect” for Fredericktown, a program that’s seen its fair share of struggles in recent years.
“Just keep the momentum going, keep winning,” he said. “Keep the attitude up.”