In the teams’ third Division II state football semifinal meeting in four years, Avon achieved the goal of closing the gap on powerful Akron Archbishop Hoban on Nov. 13.
But down to one make-or-break play late in the fourth quarter at Byers Field in Parma, an interception return for a touchdown thrown by Eagles quarterback Niko Pappas to Knights safety Kharion Davis meant that gap would continue to exist, even if it was indeed smaller.
Davis’ 61-yard touchdown return with 1:40 left in the fourth quarter put the Knights (10-0) ahead 28-14, and a second interception on a deep throw with 19 seconds left guaranteed the team’s return to the state championship game.
Hoban will play Massillon Washington at 7 p.m. on Friday at Fortress Obetz in Columbus, seeking its fifth state title in six years. Since 2013 when coach Tim Tyrrell was hired, the Knights have been fashioned into a dynasty of sorts.
Still, Avon (10-1), playing in its fourth consecutive state semifinal, came painfully close to denying the Knights their trip south. The Eagles erased a 14-0 halftime deficit and had the Knights reeling until midway through the fourth quarter.
“We’ve all been (in big games) before, so we just knew we had to execute all the plays in the second half, and our defense needed more stops,” Eagles wideout Tim Conwell said.
After forcing a turnover on downs near midfield on Hoban’s opening drive of the second half, the Eagles scored six plays later when Conwell hauled in an 8-yard Pappas pass with 3:59 left in the third quarter. The Eagle defense forced a Knights punt, then Pappas orchestrated an 11-play, 89-yard drive that ended with him walking into the end zone on a two-yard keeper that tied the game at 14-14.
Held to 83 yards in the first half by a Knights defense loaded with NCAA Division I talent, the Eagles were suddenly hitting big plays. Pappas had runs of 28 and 22 yards on the scoring drives, and Ryan Ptacek’s ability to get a foot down inbounds on a 17-yard catch inside the Hoban 5 led to Pappas’ run to tie the game.
“I started running more north and south, rather than out-around” Pappas said of his crucial big gains that helped keep the scoring drives alive. “(Hoban’s got) really fast guys and we had to get downhill.”
With 9:34 left in the fourth quarter, Hoban, which entered the game averaging 43.3 points while allowing 3.5 through four playoff contests, was in the rare position of being challenged late in a game. It responded with an eight-play, 80-yard drive and a Victor Dawson three-yard run to retake the lead, 21-14.
Avon began its next drive at its own 25 and began to march before linebacker Darryl Peterson–a University of Wisconsin commit–sacked Pappas for an eight-yard loss inside the 30. Consecutive stops led to a pivotal 4th-and-18 for the Eagles with 1:54 left, and after a timeout, they’d have one final attempt to extend the game.
Pappas took the snap and looked for any receiver with a shred of daylight, but with Hoban’s frighteningly fast pass rush closing in, he heaved a ball toward midfield that was intercepted and and returned for a score by Davis, ending the Eagles’ inspired effort.
“That’s just who they are,” Eagles coach Mike Elder said. “If you’ve watched them at all this season, they just fight and fight and fight. And as a coach, you want your kids to be great teammates, you want them to love each other and you want them to play with relentless effort, regardless of circumstances. That’s what this team does. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The teams last met for the same stakes in 2018, with the Knights winning 42-7. The year before, they won 30-6.
“We’re not into moral victories,” Elder said. “These kids believed in their heart they could come here and win. I believed that as a coach, and it didn’t happen. But we gave ourselves a chance. We fought back, so there’s certainly some things we’ll be proud of. But in the end, hats off to Hoban. They’re going back to the state championship where they’ve lived and they’re the standard.”
“If you want to win one that’s who you’ve got to go through,” he said. “We’ve closed that gap. That was my message to the underclassmen. But there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Pappas finished 14-for-26 passing for 144 yards despite being sacked six times. He added 17 rushing yards. Devon Hunter ran for 34 yards on 10 carries, and Conwell led the team in receiving with seven catches for 66 yards. Michael Ptacek picked up 43 yards on five catches.
Dawson’s 11-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter gave the Knights an early 7-0 lead, and he finished with 110 yards on 17 carries. Davis lined up all over the field, adding 35 rushing yards and 35 receiving yards to his big night. Rutgers-bound Brayden Fox hauled in five Shane Hamm passes for 85 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown late in the second quarter.
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