By Garth Shanklin
If the New Richmond Lions’ playoff opening game against Mount Healthy on Nov. 5 was a movie, reviewers would likely give it poor ratings due to a bad start, with several shutting it off early. However, if one were to watch the entirety of the film, they would discover quite the classic.
New Richmond trailed 21-0 early in the third quarter against the Owls, only to rally with 28 straight points to take a seven point lead. After the Owls cut the lead to one, New Richmond scored again and stopped a late two-point conversion attempt to seal a 35-33 victory, the school’s first postseason win since 2001.
Without tight end Gage Kramer, out due to injury, the Lions’ offense stalled several times throughout the first half. Mount Healthy kept the team off the field in the first quarter, giving New Richmond just one possession in the period. The Lions did connect on a deep pass from sophomore quarterback Josh Anderson to Chandler Kinhalt, but the drive stalled and New Richmond was forced to punt.
The Owls drove all the way to the New Richmond four, only to have the Lions’ defense stand tall for the second time in the game and hold them scoreless.
On the very next Lions’ possession, Anderson was forced to scramble and lofted a pass into coverage that was picked off by Mount Healthy’s Bryan Cook and returned 41 yards for the first score of the game.
After the teams traded punts, New Richmond got the ball back with 3:50 remaining in the half. The Lions attempted a punt from their own 24 yard line, only to have a poor snap result in an incomplete pass, giving Mount Healthy excellent field position. The Owls took advantage, scoring on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Michael Crawford to Robert Corbin to take a 14-0 lead into the half.
The Lions got the ball back and marched down the field, facing a third down at the Owls’ 20 yard-line with 22 seconds left in the half. Again, Anderson found himself pressured and the resulting throw was intercepted.
The third quarter began the same way the second one ended for the Lions. Anderson’s pass attempt on second down was a hair high, leading to a Mount Healthy interception, their third of the game. The Lions forced a fourth down with the ball at their own 40 yard line, only to have the
Owls’ connect on a 30-yard pass. They scored on a five-yard touchdown catch by Derell Williams to take a 21-0 lead with seven minutes left in the third quarter.
At this point, it would have been logical to assume the game was over. New Richmond’s offense had been unable to protect Anderson consistently, resulting in poor throws that were intercepted. The Lions’ rushing attack was nowhere to be found, and the team had shown little signs of being able to turn things around.
Around this point in the game, New Richmond head coach Josh Stratton took off his jacket, exposing a t-shirt with the team’s core values on the back, helping remind the team of why they play the game.
“Our core values are on the back of my shirt, and I wanted to remind the team of what our seniors came together and created in my room back in January,” Stratton said. “I wanted to remind them all that that’s what got us here and that’s what going to win the game. I wanted them to believe in it, and they did.”
The Lions’ very next drive started with a 45-yard pass from Anderson to Corey Bozic. Anderson scored on a one-yard keeper to put the Lions on the board with 5:37 left in the third. New Richmond lined up for a pooch kick on the kickoff, only to end up with the ball after the Owls’ fumbled the kick. It was not a designed onside try, according to Stratton, but the team was ready if the ball wasn’t fielded cleanly.
“We just tried to put it in the air, cover it and tackle it,” Stratton said. “If they field it, it’s a catch-tackle. If they bobble it, we’re right there and that’s what happened.”
The Lions took over at the Owls’ 40, and less than two minutes later they were once again in the end zone on the strength of an Anderson run, this one from 10 yards out.
Mount Healthy held onto the next kickoff and marched down the field, picking up a first down at the New Richmond 22. Four straight incomplete passes later, and New Richmond took over with a chance to tie the game.
The Lions marched down the field, narrowly avoiding disaster when a defensive back jumped a quick out route, only to drop the would-be interception. The drive ended on another one-yard touchdown run by Anderson. Chandler Farmer’s extra point tied the game at 21 with 9:15 left in the fourth quarter.
Mount Healthy would be forced to punt twice on their next drive. The first punt was downed at the New Richmond 22, but a false start on the offense forced a re-kick. The next kick hit a Mount Healthy player at the 49, giving the Lions much better field position.
They took advantage, scoring in just two plays. Anderson ran the ball in from 25 yards out to give New Richmond their first lead of the game at 28-21 with 7:20 remaining.
Mount Healthy answered, returning the kickoff to the New Richmond 32. Justice Waller scored on a 22-yard sweep to pull the Owls within one. Instead of kicking the extra point to tie the game, however, Mount Healthy elected to go for two. The Lions stopped them short, maintaining a one-point lead.
Anderson struck end zone, hitting on a 20-yard slant route to Cook to pull within two. New Richmond again stood tall on the two-point conversion try, stringing out the run and forcing it out of bounds well shy of the end zone to seal a 35-33 win.
Stratton said it was a complete team effort that led the team to the win, from the freshman on kick coverage to the team’s receivers.
“The whole team has a lot of heart,” Stratton said. “Our receiving corp played their butts off tonight, making great catches, fighting. T.J. Gelter, the smallest guy on the field, breaking tackles and getting first downs. That was a freshman that recovered the pooch kick that they fumbled, Mitchell Williamson. Our sophomore quarterback played like a senior tonight, and our seniors have carried us all year.”
Anderson completed 14 of 22 passes for 245 yards and three interceptions. He also carried the ball 22 times for 121 yards and five touchdowns.
Bozic led the Lions in receptions in the absence of Kramer. The receiver caught five passes for 106 yards on the night. Stratton called Kramer the team’s ’emotional leader’ and said there were points in the game where he had to remind the team he wouldn’t be there to make plays for them.
“He broke the school record for receptions in a season but not only that, he’s our emotional leader,” Stratton said. “He makes everyone feel calm and that everything’s going to be OK. I think at times, especially on offense, we missed his presence. I wanted to tell the team, especially at halftime, that he wasn’t coming back. Get over it. We have to move on, we need to come together and stop looking at him to make a play. [Anderson] had a great second half.”
Trailing 21-0 early in the second half is not ideal for any team, especially a team that has not found itself in that situation before. Stratton said he couldn’t remember if the Lions had faced this kind of adversity in his four seasons at the helm, but he was proud of how they responded.
“We haven’t had to do this, maybe in my four years I’ve been here that’s the only time I’ve had a real, come-from-behind victory like that,” Stratton said. “This year, games have been at hand in the third quarter for the last nine weeks. For us to have to fight, scrap, claw…that’s why you coach. That’s why you play as a player for games like that. Our kids responded. I’m proud of them.”
Stratton said he told the team at halftime situations like the one they found themselves in against the Owls help shape them both as players and as people.
“Their backs were against the wall and how they react to this is going to shape the kind of man they’ll be 15, 20 years from now,” Stratton said. “You come out swinging and you’re going to fight and do what it takes to survive or you’re going to lay down. We talk about making husbands and fathers and guys that are great husbands and fathers are fighters. They never turn their backs on their family. Our football family is an extension of that, and we’re trying to mold them to do that kind of thing down the road, and they did that tonight.”
The victory was New Richmond’s first playoff win since defeating Ross High School 42-38 in 2001 in the regional quarterfinals. The team fell to Bellbrook 62-28 in the regional semifinals one week later.
Stratton says the 2016 team is one of the best, if not the best, in school history, and the easiest way to cement that claim is with a win in week 12, something the school has never done in three tries.
“We think this is the best team that New Richmond’s ever had, but in order to make that claim we have to win next week,” Stratton said.
The Lions will get their fourth chance to advance to week 12 on Saturday, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m. against Trotwood-Madison. The game will be played at Mason High School.