DANVILLE – The playoffs are traditionally a time when experience reigns. As the air gets colder and the competition gets stiffer, veteran players and coaches are often seen as favorites – more likely to come through in the biggest moments, because they’ve been there before.
Just don’t tell Danville that.
The upstart Blue Devils, led by first-year head coach Cam Smith and a trio of talented underclassmen, appeared right at-home under the bright postseason lights on Friday night. After falling behind early, they steamrolled visiting Cardington, 46-20, to advance to the regional quarterfinals.
“We were all pretty excited and ready, and we just came in prepared,” said sophomore wideout Kaiden Colopy, following his first career playoff appearance. “We knew it was gonna be tough because it’s hard to beat the same team twice, but then after the first couple drives, we came back and we started going.”
Colopy was one of several Danville sophomores to shine on Friday. He and quarterback Max Payne connected for three touchdowns, including two in late-down situations, to propel the Blue Devils past the Pirates for the second time this season. Danville also beat Cardington on Sept. 4, 30-22.
“It feels great …” said Smith, following his first career playoff win. “I’m really happy for the kids. They play so hard, and it’s fun to see them come out victorious after that and successful after playing like that.”
Danville (5-2), seeded fourth in Div. VII Region 27, will host area stalwart Newark Catholic (4-3) in the regional quarterfinals next Friday night. Cardington (4-4), seeded 13th, will host Northridge (2-6) in a regular-season matchup next week. The Pirates will close out the 2020 campaign at Elgin on Oct. 30.
The OHSAA expanded the playoffs this year to include every team in the state, following a shortened regular season due to COVID-19 precautions. Schools that are eliminated or have chosen not to enter the playoffs have the option to schedule additional regular-season games through Nov. 14, with a maximum of 10 games.
THIRTY-FOUR UNANSWERED: As poised as the young Blue Devils appeared on Friday night, there were still signs of early-game jitters.
On Danville’s first offensive play from scrimmage, a shotgun snap sailed over Payne’s head and into the end zone, resulting in a safety.
The quarterback would throw an interception on Danville’s next drive, deep in Cardington territory, and the Pirates would capitalize. Four plays later, junior gunslinger Nate Hickman found senior Garrett Thompson down the sideline for a 33-yard touchdown catch, giving the visitors an 8-0 lead.
It was at that moment, Colopy said, that Danville refocused. The rest was history.
The Blue Devils proceeded to score 34 unanswered points over the next quarter-and-a-half, including 27 by halftime.
Payne found Colopy in the flat and the wideout sprinted into the end zone from 45 yards out behind stellar open-field blocking. Then, following an interception from freshman defensive back Walker Weckesser, the Blue Devils marched 72 yards in four minutes, capping off the drive with a 12-yard Colopy touchdown sprint up the left side. Payne found Colopy for a highlight-reel catch in the corner of the end zone to complete the two-point conversion, making it 14-8 Danville with 7:45 left in the half.
But the Blue Devils weren’t done. Another extended drive – this one 75 yards in three-and-a-half minutes – resulted in a 4-yard scoring rush from junior Deion Parker. Then, after sophomore linebacker Levi Lyons sacked Hickman to force a turnover on downs, Danville scored again on a 15-yard touchdown catch from Colopy.
The Blue Devils led 27-8 at halftime.
The second half featured more of the same. Parker bullied his way into the end zone on Danville’s first drive, and sophomore kicker Sophie Snively made it 34 unanswered with an extra point.
Cardington stopped the bleeding with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Hickman to senior Trey Brininger, narrowing the margin to 20 with six minutes left in the third quarter. But that’s as close as Cardington would get. Danville scored again on its next drive – this time, Payne found Colopy in the end zone on fourth-and-goal – to extend the lead. The quarterback bulldozed into the end zone on Danville’s next drive to make it 46-14 heading into the fourth quarter.
Hickman would score on a 20-yard touchdown scamper early in the fourth quarter to set the final score.
KEYS TO THE GAME: In addition to Danville’s playmaking on the perimeter, the Blue Devils dominated the line of scrimmage on Friday.
This afforded Payne time to throw – or room to create with his feet – and it put pressure on Hickman in the backfield. Danville sacked the Pirates’ gunslinger four times, and forced countless hurried throws.
“Their d-line and their o-line beat us up in the first game, and we were trying to do something different, and they did it again …” Cardington head coach Tod Brininger said. “They obviously put some new plays in that were successful, with some counter stuff, some passes off the bunch (formation) that we hadn’t seen before. I thought we did a good job in the first quarter against their run, and then they started throwing the ball on us a little bit, and then it opened up their running game.
“They’re a good team – obviously they’ve proved it all year – and I don’t think they’re a good matchup for us line-wise, to be honest. And they’re quick and they’re aggressive. So it’s one of those things that I think we’ll look back on it, (and) I don’t know that we could’ve done much more. They just played a really good game.”
The Pirates were also without starting middle linebacker/tailback Joe Denney on Friday. The junior injured his ankle during Cardington’s 68-43 first-round win over Fisher Catholic last week.
“Joe would solidify things, he’s a really good tackler,” Brininger said. “We just didn’t tackle as well, and they’re shifty.”
It’s hard to say if one man could have disrupted the connection between Payne and Colopy, however. The two sophomores were seemingly unstoppable, with Colopy catching six passes for 128 yards and three scores.
Colopy said they’ve shared an uncommon connection since they began playing together in junior high. Now, that bond is holding true on high school football’s biggest stage.
“I was a running back in junior high, but I always went out for passes whenever we’d do throws,” Colopy recalled. “He’d just look at me and we just clicked, once we made eye contact. It’s just been like that since.”
Despite his breakout individual performance, Colopy gave all the credit to his teammates on Friday night.
“Max was throwing great passes, the line was blocking phenomenally,” he said. “Everybody was doing their job tonight. It was great.”
Payne threw 16-of-26 on Friday for 254 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He also led the team in rushing with 97 yards and a score. Parker tallied 77 rushing yards, while seven Blue Devils (including Colopy) recorded a catch.
Danville scored a season-high 46 points and mustered 446 total yards in its first playoff game since 2017. After scoring just six points against East Knox in Week 6, Smith said he was pleased with the team's offensive rebound on Friday.
“Our offense really stepped up,” Smith said. “We usually hold the ball well, but we’ve been struggling with finishing it in the red zone … Everybody stepping up and doing their piece and moving the ball around, and sticking that ball in the end zone a few more times this game – that’s certainly exciting, to put up some points, because we’ve been struggling with that a little bit.”
The Blue Devils were particularly lethal in late-down situations. They converted seven of their 10 third- or fourth-down opportunities, prolonging drives and devastating Cardington’s defense.
“I don’t know how many third downs they had in the first half – it was third-and-nine, third-and-10, third-and-11, and they picked it up. And that’s deflating to a defense ...” Brininger lamented.
“We just couldn’t stop them when we needed to, like when it was fourth-down-and-10 and they threw a touchdown pass. We knew who it was going to, we were screaming ‘45,’ and they still just threw it up to him. Good for them.”
While Danville is young, Smith said his team has matured greatly over the course of the season. He’s confident in their ability to perform under the late-October lights, despite their lack of experience in doing so.
“Now that we’re in the playoffs, we’re six, seven, eight games deep – we tell them, ‘You’re not a freshman any more,’” Smith said. “‘You’re not a sophomore any more. You’ve been playing, you’re good.’”
MOVING FORWARD: Danville will host Newark Catholic next week for the first time since 1969. The Green Wave is coming off a 42-6 home win over Conotton Valley (4-3) on Friday night.
If the Blue Devils win, they will face the winner of No. 1 Trimble vs. No. 9 Berne Union in the regional semifinals.
The last time Smith faced Newark Catholic, he was a senior at Watkins Memorial High School. The year was 2014, and the Warriors were undefeated at the time. They went on to win, 10-3.
Smith is hoping for a similar result this time around.
“We beat ‘em under the lights on TV, it was really fun. So hopefully we can have another game like that … Kept it real tight, it was really good and competitive. So hopefully we have something like that here,” Smith said.
“We know they’re always well-coached and just sound football (players), and of course, a school like that, they’ve got some good athletes … I haven’t watched too much on it because obviously I didn’t want to look ahead or anything, so we’ll see the specifics. But we know they’re gonna be good, so we’ll prepare pretty hard.”