ZANESVILLE - There were many people who wondered how St. Clairsville's football team would respond when it faced its first real challenge.
Through the first 12 weeks, the Red Devils breezed to victories, but the Red Devils received a solid test Friday night at John D. Sulsberger Memorial Stadium and passed with flying colors.
The Red Devils had an answer for each jab the Johnstown-Monroe Johnnies threw in their Division IV, Region 15 championship game and celebrated the school's first regional football championship since 1986 with a cherished 37-29 vicotory.
St. Clairsville Football
"Awesome ... just awesome!" said St. Clairsville head coach Brett McLean as he received the championship trophy. "We haven't celebrated anything to this point. We've just stayed focused the entire time, and we're still focused, but we told the kids that this is one of the biggest goals we had all year and we had to come out and fight tooth and nail to get it. This was our first four-quarter, grind-it-out victory all year."
The victory sends the Red Devils to the Division IV State semifinals, which will open next Friday at a venue to be determined Sunday by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
The Red Devils will take on defending state champion Creston Norwayne, which easily dispatched previously undefeated Brookfield in the Region 13 title game.
MEMBERS OF the St. Clairsville Red Devils senior class, including Brandon Westlake (56), Jerrid Marhefka (6), Luke Smith (22) and Titus Lepic (1), accept the Regional Championship Trophy after St. C. prevailed against Johnstown-Monroe Friday night at Zanesville Sulsberger Memorial Stadium. Additional images may be found at cu.timesleaderonline.com
"I told the kids that the best teams in the state practice on Thanksgiving," McLean said. "We're going to be practicing Thanksgiving morning and it's a great feeling."
St. Clairsville appeared as if it was headed for another laugher when it scored the first 17 points of the game.
Senior quarterback Matt Kinnick darted 13 yards untouched, junior kicker Zach Musilli was perfect on a 21-yard field goal and Michigan-bound junior Michael Ferns hauled in a 12-yard touchdown from Kinnick all in the first quarter for the Red Devils' lead.
"To get up early was huge," McLean said. "We had to get our nerves and jitters out, too. That put them behind the 8-ball, but they stayed patient. Once they got a score on us and had some momentum, they just ran what they run."
St. Clairsville carried what seemed like a commanding 24-7 lead into the lockerroom at halftime after Kinnick found senior standout Jerrid Marhefka on a fourth-down play for a 21-yard touchdown. Musilli was again perfect on the PAT.
Johnstown-Monroe, the defending Region 15 champion, cut the lead to 24-21 early in the fourth quarter when quarterback Tyler Thompson darted into the end zone from 23 yards out for his third rushing touchdown of the contest.
"It got tight there," McLean said. "No one faltered and everyone just went out and executed what they were supposed to do and stayed focused. I've never seen doubt in these kids."
The Johnnies' momentum was short lived.
Two plays into the next drive, Kinnick found Marhefka across the middle on what appeared to be headed for a short gain.
"How about JMar?," McLean said. "That play was probably the biggest play of our season. It was senior to senior and it was well executed."
Marhefka, who was a part of St. C.'s regional championship squads in basketball and track last school year, picked up a couple of blocks and was off to the races for a 66-yard touchdown.
"Matt put the ball out there for me and Dan (Monteroso) made a couple of blocks down the the field to spring it," Marhefka said. "We saw the linebacker coming, it was a quick call and we adjusted to it. This is just an unbelievable feeling especially the way we pulled together and came together in the second half."
Kinnick, who finished the game 14-of-30 for 260 yards and four scores through the air, knew it was just a matter of staying patient down the stretch.
"We just had to keep doing what we do because we knew we needed a score at that point," Kinnick said. "JMar came up huge in the clutch."
Zach Musilli - the steady Red Devils' placekicker - was perfect once again on a PAT, making it 31-21.
"We had seniors make big plays," McLean said. "But, we also had sophomores and juniors who did big things for us. Like it's been all season, this was a total team effort. We had some guys play and come up big who hadn't played much all season in different spots, so that's huge."
The St. Clairsville defense held the Johnnies' well below their average on the ground. Both Thompson and sophomore standout Cody Farley surpassed the 100-yard mark with 129 and 102, respectively.
"We put our defense in some tough situations all night, but they stood tall," McLean said.
The Red Devils' defense was led by senior defensive end Jay Gossett, who was in the Johnnies' backfield seemingly all night long. Ferns, Luke Smith, Colby Lindsay and Marhefka all turned in brilliant performances on the defensive side of the ball.
"Jay Gossett was a man all night long defensively," McLean said. "Plus, he blocked his rear end off for us on offense."
Gossett got into the act on offense to cap the Red Devils' scoring when he went high in the air to bring down Kinnick's fourth touchdown pass of the game from 7 yards out.
"We just had to make plays (on both sides of the ball)," Gossett said. "Defensively, we just had to make reads (against the option) and then go make the play."
The Red Devils' offense received another outstanding effort from junior jet Jaylon Brown. Though he didn't reach the end zone for the first time all season, Brown finished with 142 yards on 26 carries. He also caught three passes for 38 yards.