COLUMBUS, Ohio — Cornell Beachem bobbled the ball briefly near the Massillon Washington 40-yard line after a Tigers punt late in the first half. It could have been another crushing mishap in a string of misfortune for the heavily favored Winton Woods football team Friday night in a Division II state semifinal.
But that’s not what happened.
Beachem took hold of the ball before a gang of Massillon players got to him. He took off to the right and barreled down the sideline until he reached the end zone.
Beachem’s 42-yard punt return only 2:32 before halftime was the big play that ignited the Warriors to a 56-point rally and a 56-21 win over Massillon at St. Francis De Sales.
Winton Woods spotted Massillon Washington a 21-0 lead before running off eight straight touchdowns in the last three quarters. Beachem’s was the second and he would score two more.
Winton Woods (13-1), which last won a state title in 2009, will play Akron Archbishop Hoban (13-1) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton for the Division II state title.
Beachem said his late first-half touchdown turned the momentum to the Warriors.
“We gave up some silly points we should not have given up,” Beachem said. “We knew we could put up however many points we wanted to put up. I knew on special teams that I had to step it up. I had to do what I had to do. Once I got the momentum back for the team, I knew we were ready.
"After halftime, we knew we were going to put up a lot of points.”
Not many outside the Massillon locker room expected the Tigers to win, but Winton Woods made some early mistakes and the Tigers capitalized.
Senior quarterback Kenny Mayberry threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage, and Massillon took a 7-0 lead on a 63-yard screen pass from sophomore quarterback Aidan Longwell to senior receiver Austin Kuscher less than a minute into the game.
Later, sophomore running back Miyan Williams fumbled on the goal line and then left the game with a minor injury. A blocked field goal attempt became a 73-yard return for a touchdown by Massillon senior Anthony Ballard for a 14-0 lead. Early in the second quarter, Kuscher caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from freshman receiver Jayden Ballard on a double-reverse to make it 21-0.
“They were prepared,” Winton Woods coach Andre Parker said. “They made plays. I don’t know if we just weren’t settled, but we didn’t make plays. We came out and we turned the ball over early and set the tone for it.
“The thing that we felt good about was that they weren’t driving the ball. They were making big plays, so we thought if we could limit the big plays, we had an opportunity.”
After that third Massillon touchdown, things changed. The Winton Woods defense made a couple of stops and the offense took over.
“We were just trying to keep our head up,” Mayberry said. “We were trying to do what the coaches told us to do.”
The Warriors started moving the ball late in the second quarter and Mayberry found senior receiver Navar Gannaway at the goal line for a 15-yard touchdown pass. Gannaway had to leap high to get it, but Winton Woods was on the board.
“He bailed me out,” Mayberry said. “If he wouldn’t have caught it, it probably would have been an interception. That’s just a senior stepping up and making a big play.”
An interception could have been a crushing blow. Instead, it was just the beginning of what wound up a Warriors rout. The Winton Woods defense then forced a three-and-out, setting up Beachem’s return.
“We have a lot of seniors who have been starting since we were sophomores and we knew it’s a long game,” senior linebacker Chris Oats said. “We know with the team we have, we can come back.”
Winton Woods forced a three-and-out on the opening drive of the second half and Beachem was again at it with another long punt return. This time, the big-play senior caught the Massillon punt over his shoulder while racing toward his own end zone. He returned it deep into Massillon territory and a Tigers penalty put the Warriors at the 22.
“I couldn’t let it bounce,” Beachem said. “I knew we had to get good field position and go win this game.”
Beachem later scored from 5 yards out and the point-after tied the score at 21-21. On the next Massillon possession, Oats jumped on a pass deflection from his cousin, senior Gianni Gamble, and returned the interception 52 yards for the Warriors' first lead.
“He made a great play on the ball,” Oats said of Gamble’s deflection. “It was an effort play and I went and did what I did.”
The early game struggles were over and the game belonged to Winton Woods at that point.
“We were just too hyped,” Oats said. “We had to settle down. We knew what we had to do and we knew we were the better team. They ran some trick pays we hadn’t seen. We just had to come out and play our ball.”
Even with Williams out, the Warriors ran the ball at will in the second half. Beachem scored another touchdown from 23 yards out. Gannaway added a 3-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter after a last-second pitch from Mayberry, and then Mayberry scored on an 8-yard run. Senior Anthony Clark capped the scoring with a four-yard touchdown run with 58 seconds remaining.
“Cornell and Kenny, all the seniors, they just put us on their backs,” Parker said. “Especially Kenny. Kenny made so many reads tonight.”
Mayberry finished with 90 yards on 14 carries while completing 6 of 10 passes for 66 yards. Beachem added 58 yards on 10 carries. Winton Woods outgained the Tigers 318-276 overall, including 252-48 on the ground.
“We have so many skill players and we spread the ball around,” Beachem said. “We don’t have to depend on one person.”
Now the Warriors turn their attention to the state final against Hoban. It’s a game the players have been looking to for a while.
“We’ve wanted it since our freshman year,” Beachem said. “Since our freshman year, coaches have been telling us we’re the ones who were going to do it.”
Hoban won the Division III state title the past two years and was bumped to Division II this season.
“They’re going to play for their third straight state title,” Parker said. “It wouldn’t be us if it wasn’t a big opponent. That’s just the way our story goes. We have a chance for a storybook ending.”