For the second time in as many seasons, Cincinnati La Salle defeated Massillon Perry to claim the Division II Ohio high school football state championship Thursday night at Ohio Stadium.
La Salle (13-2) trailed, 7-0, at halftime before scoring 14 unanswered points in the second half to become the first D-II team to win the state title three consecutive years.
Perry’s (13-2) lone score came on an interception returned for a touchdown at the 5:56 mark of the first quarter. Junior safety Dominick Bowman jumped the route and took it in for an easy 17-yard pick-six.
With La Salle being held scoreless and producing just 67 yards of total offense in the first half, junior quarterback Griffin Merritt was replaced by senior safety TreSean Smith for a majority of the final 24 minutes.
“We needed to get more production,” La Salle head coach Jim Hilvert said of switching to Smith. “I said, ‘We got to make a change.’ We needed to make a change because things were not going right. We had too many turnovers, mistakes. We needed to keep running the football. I believe when we put him at quarterback, we were more effective running the football.”
Smith, a three-star prospect committed to Louisville, spearheaded La Salle’s second-half comeback. He engineered a 12-play, 84-yard touchdown drive late in the third quarter and a six-play, 65-yard scoring drive with less than four minutes left in the game to take the lead for good at 14-7.
Smith found the end zone both times. He dragged two defenders the final 3 yards as he stretched the ball to the pylon before falling out of bounds for the second score.
“It just took me back to the beginning of the season,” Smith said of becoming the signal caller in the second half. “I started off at quarterback, made the switch to defense and then just came out here and ran the plays that Coach called.”
His game-winning score came after Perry failed to convert a fourth-and-7 at La Salle’s 35. Junior quarterback Max Baker slightly overthrew a diving Tevion Cleveland near the Lancers’ 5.
“That was mine,” Perry head coach Keith Wakefield said of whose decision it was to go for it. “A lot of people gave us no chance and so there was a lot of thought of, ‘Well, let’s just make it look good.’ We’re not into to making it look good. We wanted to win. We played hard enough to win the game. There was no indecision there. I was going to do that if we had to at any point.”
Smith finished the game with 121 rushing yards on 14 carries and had an interception while playing safety on defense.
“I think this game typifies our football team,” Hilvert said. “The guys have a heart of a champion. Never flinched in the face of adversity.”