SPARKY is a Rider

BELLAIRE – A pair of playoff-bound football teams met for the 108th time here Saturday afternoon at soggy and windy Nelson Field.

When it was all said and done, Martins Ferry (9-1) became defensive after the first quarter en route to a 22-17 victory over arch-rival Bellaire (7-3) before a packed house in the All-American Town.

Trailing 17-7 after 12 minutes and not being able to stop the Big Reds, the Purple Riders made the right adjustments and never let the hosts find the end zone again.

“Our kids have been very resilient,” veteran Martins Ferry head coach Dave Bruney said while trying to control his emotions. “If you look back, I think we’ve done that the last three weeks (come from behind).”

Bellaire took a 17-7 lead late in the first quarter when Spencer Badia found Kenny Hess in the end zone for a 18-yard scoring hookup. The athletic Hess went high into the air to haul in the pass. Cody LaRoche, who had earlier booted a 22-yard field goal, split the uprights with his second PAT of the contest.

However, the Big Reds, who had 145 yards on their three first-quarter scoring drives, only generated 119 in the remaining three quarters as Martins Ferry slowly, but surely, chipped away at the deficit.

Martins Ferry struck quickly as it took the second-quarter kickoff and marched 73 yards on seven plays, with the final 33 coming on a finely-timed Brian Styles-to-Jake Barritt fly pattern down the near sidelines. Arjay Burress knocked the extra-point through for a 17-14 Bellaire edge with 9:42 left in the first half. The drive was aided by a Bellaire penalty.

Justyn Keyser, who had picked off a Styles pass and returned it nearly 60 yards to setup LaRoche’s field goal, swiped another pass late in the half when he alertly grabbed a pass that deflected off the hands of a Purple Riders’ receiver.

However, four plays later, Jahod Joyce stripped the ball from a Bellaire receiver’s hands as Styles fell on it.

The Big Reds took the second-half kickoff and proceeded to move the ball downfield as Badia, who surpassed Nate Davis as Bellaire’s all-time leading passer and became the first Big Reds’ QB with 500 completions, clicked on three passes for 50 yards. His 14-yard strike to Hess setup a first-and-goal from the Purple Riders’ 7.

However, after a trio of successive incomplete passes, LaRoche was called upon for a chip-shot field goal. A bad snap resulted in LaRoche being hauled down for a 9-yard loss by Marcus Sutton.

Once again, the Riders stuck to the ground in moving towards the opposite goalline. Burress got the drive started with a 24-yard burst off the left side of the line, but injured his ankle and missed several series. Joyce took his place and made his presence felt immediately with a 12-yard run on fourth-and-1 that put the ball at the Bellaire 38.

Styles lost four yards on the next two plays, but made up for it on third down. Rolling to his right and running out of time and real estate, he lofted the ball down the far sidelines where Marcus Sutton had somehow managed to get behind the Bellaire defender for a 40-yard hookup to the 2.

Two plays later, junior Bryce Coleman powered his way in from a yard out with what turned out to be the winning points. With Burress, the Purple Riders’ kicker, still hobbled by the right (kicking) ankle injury, Styles ran in for the two-point conversion.

Martins Ferry looked to be going in again just moments later after Jack Fitch picked off a deflected pass and rambled deep into Bellaire territory, but the Purple Riders returned the favor two plays later with a fumble at the goal line that was recovered by Bellaire’s Austin McConville, who turned in an impressive performance all afternoon.

Bellaire went three-and-out, but Hunter Westlake’s punt was muffed, with McConville once again falling on the loose pigskin at the Big Reds’ 37. Once again, Bellaire couldn’t budge the Ferry defense and punted, this time Westlake sent a 50-yard bouncing to the Purple Riders’ 12.

Faced with a fourth-and-inches from its own 21 and just over 10 minutes remaining to play, the always-conservative Bruney suddenly became a riverboat gambler. The strategy backfired as a mixup in the backfield resulted in Styles being hauled down just outside his own 10.

Badia found Ross for 8 yards on first down, but Brandon Laughman scored a on a 15-yard jaunt in the first quarter, was stopped for no gain on second down by Hondo Palmer. A third-down pass fell incomplete, while a fourth-down pass bounced off a receiver’s chest and fell harmlessly to the turf, turning the ball over on downs.

Bruney, with the clock on his side now, rolled the dice again on fourth-and-inches from his own 14, but Coleman moved the sticks on the carry. Joyce also had a first-down run on third-and-2. However, the drive eventually stalled.

“I had confidence in our offensive line and backs, but I also had confidence in the defense because it was playing so well,” Bruney said of the fourth-down gambles. “We’re still playing next week, so you can do some things like that.”

Despite many chances, the Big Reds lost out on an opportunity to host a first round Division VI playoff game next weekend and an outright Buckeye 8 title, which they now share with Martins Ferry and St. Clairsville.

“They tried to give it to us a couple of times,” Bellaire head coach Jose Davis offered. “I don’t think anyone was foolish enough to think this was going to be a two- or three-touchdown game. This was two very good football teams going at it.”

With the victory, Martins Ferry captures the SPARKY Trophy, along with the OVAC Class 4-A and a share of the Buckeye 8. The Purple Riders were already assured of a home playoff game next Saturday night.

“All of those things are very nice,” Bruney noted.

The Purple ran 51 times for 285 yards and two touchdowns, with Styles leading the way with 91 yards and a TD on 19 totes. Burress added 87 on 11 carries and went over the 1,000-yard mark. Unofficially, he now has 1,052.

Badia finished 14 of 36 for 227, a TD and a pick, but had more than a handful of attempts batted down in the second half, with big Robert Vargo recording most of the rejections. He now has 7,529 yards through the air in his career. He also became the first player in OVAC history to go over the 8,000-yard mark in total offense. He now has 8,001.

Brendon Ross had a team-high six receptions for 78 yards.

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