The Bay Rockets fumbled footballs, struggled to establish the run and wore down during the second half of their season opener last Friday at Elyria Catholic.

In other words, it was an uncharacteristic performance for a team that has made the Division III playoffs for six straight years.

The Panthers, on the other hand, did just about everything right as they combined a balanced offense and a smothering defense to roll to a 27-0 win. It was the first time the Rockets had been shut out in a regular season game since 2016, and the first time they’d been shut out by a Great Lakes Conference opponent since the league began play in 2015.

In fact, the Rockets hadn’t been shut out in a league game since the 2011 season, when they were a part of the now-defunct West Shore Conference.

“I don’t want to make any excuses. We played a good football team and we lost,” Rockets coach Ron Rutt said. “(Elyria Catholic’s) well-coached, they’ve got some great athletes, and there’s no shame in losing to them. But it was our first game of the year and we had a lot of guys seeing their first varsity action.”

Bay (0-1, 0-1 Great Lakes Conference) took a winding road to its 2020 debut, which was scheduled for the third week of the regular season. Team workouts were ongoing during the summer, then stopped completely once a Cuyahoga County Board of Health recommendation led to the shuttering of all extracurricular activities for a short time. Full practices were finally allowed toward the end of August, and the Rockets were only able to scrimmage once, which took place Sept. 4.

The lack of a consistent build-up might have played a part in their struggles, as the Panthers (1-1, 1-0 GLC) methodically totaled 369 yards–201 coming via the run. They used some no-huddle plays, ran direct snap handoffs and made Rocket defenders miss, especially in the second half.

Sophomore Levi Ellis led the Panthers with 130 yards and a third-quarter touchdown on 22 carries. The trio of Tavion Thomas, Dominic Stevenson and Brady Cook changed the pace and combined to rush for 78 yards.

“Our guys got upfield a little too far on the defensive front and gave their guys some lanes to run through,” Rutt said. “That’s something we’ve got to work on and clean up.”

And when 6-foot-4 Panthers quarterback Steven Navalinsky dropped back to pass, he had a pair of equally imposing targets on either sideline in 6-6 Jack Kenneally and 6-4 Jaret Frantz. Frantz (seven catches, 58 yards) hauled in a pair of first half touchdowns from five and 10 yards, respectively, to help his team build a 14-0 halftime lead. Kenneally (four catches, 85 yards) grabbed a six-yard touchdown pass with 4:19 left in regulation to put them up 27-0.

Navalinsky completed 15 of 22 passes for 168 yards.

“It’s amazing,” Panthers coach Brian Fox said of his skill players’ height. “I don’t know how we got all these giant kids. The only time I don’t like it is when I have to stand next to them–they make me feel short. But when (Frantz and Kenneally) are on the field, they’re so tough to guard. I call them the oak trees, just these giants out there and there’s no ball out of their reach.”

Offensively, two of Bay’s first three drives ended in turnovers. On the game’s first possession, the Rockets drove to the Panther 24, but Zach Starowesky fumbled on 2nd-and-8, recovered by Panthers defensive back Alex Carandang. The hosts answered with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive, capped by Frantz’ first touchdown catch.

With 9:22 left in the second quarter, another Rockets drive moved to the Panther 45. But on 4th-and-1, quarterback Tony Buttari was stuffed for no gain and a turnover on downs. The Panthers would score again with seven seconds left using a 12-play, 89-yard drive. After Frantz caught his second pass in the end zone from Navalinsky, Ellis pushed in a two-point conversion run to make it 14-0.

Ellis’ touchdown run gave Elyria Catholic a 20-0 lead late in the third quarter, and Nathan Scholle’s recovery of a Nick Buttari fumble with 6:04 left in the final quarter set up Kenneally’s touchdown four plays later.

The Rockets gained 130 total yards–43 in the second half–and managed just six first downs. Nick Buttari led the offense with 64 yards on 19 carries, while younger brother Tony completed 4 of 12 passes for 27 yards. Nathan Dacek recovered a fumble in the first quarter for a defensive highlight.

“I told the guys we’ll get better,” Rutt said. “We’ve got a lot of things we can work on through the next week and we’ll come ready to play next week.”

Bay will attempt to get on track this Friday when it travels to Valley Forge (1-0).

Last week’s scores

SWC

Avon 49, North Ridgeville 14

Avon Lake 42, Midview 0

Olmsted Falls 56, North Olmsted 27

GLC

Rocky River 46, Fairview 14

Buckeye 27, Lakewood 0

LCL

Firelands 42, Brookside 0

CVC

Berkshire 28, Lutheran West 7

Non-league

Green 40, Westlake 20

St. Edward 28, Mentor 24

This week’s games

SWC

North Olmsted at Avon, 7 p.m.

Avon Lake at Amherst, 7 p.m.

Olmsted Falls at North Ridgeville, 7 p.m.

GLC

Bay at Valley Forge, 7 p.m.

Parma at Fairview, 7 p.m.

Holy Name at Rocky River, 7 p.m.

Normandy at Lakewood, 7 p.m.

LCL

Brookside at Keystone, 7 p.m.

CVC

Independence at Lutheran West, 7 p.m.

Non-league

Cuyahoga Falls at Westlake, 7 p.m.

St. Edward at St. Ignatius, 7 p.m. (Sat.)

Contact this reporter at sports@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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