CLAYTON, Ohio — Football season ended in 2016 just as 2014 and 2015 ended for Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy — with a loss in the Division V state playoffs to perennial small-school power Coldwater.
But this year was a different and a lot closer. The Eagles fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter and 28-7 at halftime before making Coldwater sweat out a 35-21 win on a cold, blustery and sometimes snowy Saturday night a Northmont High School in the Division V, Region 20 final.
Without a doubt, the four-time defending state champion Cavaliers were sweating the outcome a bit midway through the third quarter when CHCA senior Kesean Gamble scored from four yards out to cut a 28-7 halftime deficit to 28-14.
Certainly, the six-time state champs with 14 regional titles and seven straight state finals appearances were nervous when junior quarterback Danny Venatsky scored on a 5-yard keeper over left guard to make it 28-21 with 10:45 to play in the game, capping a dominant a 19-play, 90-yard drive for the Eagles.
It just wasn’t enough.
“We just didn’t have enough time left on the clock,” first-year CHCA coach Mark Mueller said. “You can’t get down to a good team, especially with these conditions. With the style of football we play, it’s just tough. I’m proud of the guys. They fought hard. They fought their tails off. That’s a good football team.”
Coldwater senior Neal Muhlenkamp went 65 yards over the left side for a Coldwater touchdown only a few seconds after Venatsky’s score and the Cavs simply outlasted the upset-minded Eagles.
CHCA turned the ball over on downs at the Coldwater 28 a minute later and again at its own 47 with 4:50 to play. That was that and Coldwater was through to the state semifinals.
The CHCA senior class walked off the field for the final time with only it’s fourth loss — three of which came at the hands of Coldwater. The Cavs had rolled past CHCA 34-3 in a Division V state semifinal in 2014 and 44-14 last season in the Division V Region 18 semifinals.
“These guys have lost four times and three of them are to those guys and that doesn’t sit well,” Mueller said. “They’ve passed every test, and it was just a slow start tonight. I’m sad it had to end this way.”
Coldwater has gone 258-43 since 1995, reached the playoffs every one of those seasons except for 1996 and has compiled a 66-15 postseason record with 11 state finals berths. Those are heights Saturday’s vanquished team seeks to attain.
“I hope we can come to what they have one day,” said senior running back Kesean Gamble, who finished with 182 yards on 26 carries against Coldwater. “They’re strong, and they bring so many fans. For a Division V school, it’s just amazing how many fans they bring. I hope one day we can build that community that they have.”
That will be mind over matter in many ways, according to Mueller.
“It’s belief,” Mueller said. “They believe they’re going to win. They’re good football players. They aren’t that big. They’re just tough-nosed kids and they believe. In high school football, if you have a team that can believe, it’s tough man.
“You’ve got to believe. We just have to believe, and this is one step. The last two times we played them, we got put on the (running) clock. Hopefully we come back next year and I hope we see them again.”
The Eagles never lost faith Saturday, even after falling behind 14-0 early, but the confidence really started to show as they rallied in the second half.
“I would say it was us executing better,” Gamble said. “I don’t know what it is about us, when we’re down we just fight harder than when it’s 0-0. That played a big part. At the end of the day, we lost and they won. We have to move forward with this.”
Coldwater looked the part of the perennial power from the first play from scrimmage when junior Brad Giere went through the middle for a 51-yard touchdown run and a 7-0 lead only 19 seconds into the game.
The Eagles managed one first down on their opening drive, but Coldwater began its second drive at the CHCA 37 after senior Zach Klosterman blocked the punt. Senior Nate Rindler then went around the right side for a 14-yard Coldwater touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 7:05 to play in the first quarter.
“That 14-0 didn’t really mean anything to us,” Gamble said. “We knew it was going to be a hard game. But once we were down, we knew we just got to stick with them. We just couldn’t get over that hump and that’s what stopped us.”
CHCA junior Paris Simpson helped the Eagles off the mat when he picked up a fumble by Giere at his 49. A few plays later, Gamble capped a 51-yard drive with a 2-yard scoring run over the right side to make it 14-7 with 2:06 remaining in the opening quarter.
Coldwater rolled the rest of the half and scored on touchdown passes from senior quarterback Dylan Thobe to Klosterman and junior Sam Broering.
“They made some plays early on and we didn’t make plays early on,” Mueller said. “In the second half, we started making plays.”