Indians put Wayne win streak on ice
WHEELING - A calculated risk gave Bridgeport the early lead, and its defense dug down and made it pay off.
Quarterback A.C. Caldera broke off a pair of long touchdown runs in the first half Friday night and the Indians held Wayne out of the end zone on multiple occasions afterward to earn a 14-13 victory in the Class AA title game played on a snow-covered turf field at Wheeling Island Stadium.
The victory gave the second-seeded Indians (13-1) their seventh state championship and the first since 2000. It also denied No. 1 Wayne (13-1) a third straight crown and broke the Pioneers' 36-game winning streak.
"I'm as happy as I can be,'' said a tearful Caldera, whose 38- and 21-yard scoring runs in the second quarter put Bridgeport in front at halftime 14-13.
"This is the happiest I've ever been in my life. This team . . . we fought all season. We've been a family. It just feels great to be in this moment right now.''
The play that actually stuck the Indians in front was a 2-point conversion following Caldera's second TD run that came with nine seconds left before halftime. Tailback Anthony Bonamico crashed into the end zone to turn a 13-12 deficit into a 14-13 advantage.
That touchdown was set up by one of three uncharacteristic turnovers by Wayne. Few of the thousands of frosted fans could have imagined that neither team would score the rest of the night, and Wayne twice threatened in the second half.
The Pioneers took the second-half kickoff and plowed downfield from their own 8 to the Bridgeport 12 in 13 plays, but fullback Mason Hodge was tackled for no gain on fourth-and-2 by linebacker Tyler Morgan.
Wayne's final possession, a 14-play march, also looked promising as it moved from its own 10 to the Bridgeport 22 in the final minute.
However, a penalty and a sack of quarterback Grant Ferguson backtracked the ball to the 34, and Ferguson's floater into the end zone intended for Hodge on the last play was batted down, securing the victory and sending the Indians into a dogpile in the south end zone snowpile.
"The defense won this ballgame,'' said Indians coach Josh Nicewarner. "Undoubtedly, as good as their offense was. We bent but didn't break. That's the story of the night. I'd like to tell you we've been doing this all year, but this is by far the toughest [opponent].''
Bridgeport managed to win despite picking up just one first down and 36 net yards in the second half. Wayne ran 40 plays to the Indians' 14 following the break.
"There was not a whole lot of time for possessions,'' Nicewarner said. "We had a lot of third-and-long situations, and we don't get those very often. We never could get anything going. I'm proud of this team - the coaches did a phenomenal job.''
Wayne had the lion's share of stats when the game ended - 312 net yards to Bridgeport's 181.
Hodge, selected as his team's MVP in a media vote, gained 102 yards on 19 carries and scored on a 2-yard run in the first quarter. Ferguson ran for 85 yards on 16 carries and hit on 5 of 10 passes for 67 yards, including a nifty 35-yarder to Kurt Langdon-Arthur with 7:09 left in the first half that extended the Pioneers lead to 13-6.
The extra-point kick following that TD, however, was partially blocked and went wide, giving Bridgeport a small opening to sneak through. And that's what the Indians eventually did.
A Ferguson fumble as Wayne was trying to run out the clock with 2:36 left before halftime gave Bridgeport the ball at the Pioneers 28. Dante Bonamico forced the fumble and brother Anthony Bonamico recovered.
From the 21, Caldera ran a keeper up the middle and broke into the open. Cody Stiltner missed a tackle and Caldera carried Chris Darby into the end zone.
"They're just an aggressive team,'' Caldera said of his lengthy TD runs against Wayne's defense, "and our line just did its job. It did its job all night. It opened holes and I just ran through the holes and made the plays.''
Caldera wound up as the game's top rusher with 114 yards on 16 carries and was voted as his team's MVP. Anthony Bonamico, who came into the game with nearly 2,100 yards on the ground, added 64 on 17 attempts.
After Caldera's 21-yarder made it 13-12, Nicewarner disdained going for the extra-point kick and a possible tie. The Indians missed their first PAT kick.
"It had nothing to do with not having faith in our kicker,'' Nicewarner said, "but with these conditions, I thought we had a better chance of getting 3 yards than making an extra point. To be honest, I knew it could come down to one point, so I wanted to try and even things out.''
Snow started falling about two hours before kickoff, and about 2 inches rested on the field by halftime and perhaps 3 by game's end. Yard lines were completely obliterated by the start of the game, though stadium personnel made repeated valiant attempts to shovel clear spots.
Conditions seemed to favor Bridgeport and its ground-bound stick-I offense, which rarely throws. Wayne's offense is also heavy on the run, but Ferguson came into the game with 1,339 yards passing and 17 TDs despite missing two games with an ankle injury.
Also vexing the Pioneers were ill-timed mistakes - the fumble on their own 28 that set up Bridgeport's final TD and a pair of rapid-fire turnovers five plays apart in the fourth quarter.
Stiltner broke off a long gain for a first down to the Bridgeport 40 with 8:53 left in the game, but his fumble was covered by Dante Bonamico. The Indians ran three plays before fumbling it back, but on first down Ferguson's pass was tipped and intercepted by freshman linebacker Mackenzie Holmes.
"To have a chance to win the game at the end after making those mistakes,'' said Wayne coach Tom Harmon, "just talks about what kind of character our guys have.''
Harmon said his team's final drive looked promising, but never hit the jackpot.
"We were trying to set up something the entire drive,'' he said. "Sometimes in the heat of battle, with the clock running out and no timeouts and in kind of a helter-skelter mode, you're pleased to be able to take it from that end of the field and have a chance.
"Sometimes, if you're gonna be a man, you've got to handle both sides of it.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com.