By Garth Shanklin
Down three scores. On the road. To an undefeated team ranked in the top five of the latest computer polls.
That is the situation the Milford Eagles found themselves in on Friday, Oct. 20 when the team traveled to Anderson High School to take on the undefeated Redskins. Milford went toe-to-toe with one of the top offensive teams in the state, and escaped with a come-from-behind 41-40 win.
For much of the first half, it would appear Anderson would maintain their undefeated record. Quarterback Jay Volpenhein connected with Austin Watt on a 46-yard touchdown, giving Anderson a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
It could have been a 14-0 lead, as Volpenhein connected with Watt on a 96-yard touchdown pass later in the period, but a holding call on the Redskins negated the play.
Milford answered late in the quarter, tying the game at seven on a 14-yard touchdown run by Cameron Kells.
The first seven minutes of the second quarter belonged to Anderson. Kyle Blaha scored on a two-yard run at the 10:54 mark, followed by a five-yard pass from Volpenhein to Amadez Jones with 7:14 left until halftime.
Anderson’s third touchdown of the period came on another run by Blaha, and a Volpenhein two-point conversion gave the host squad a 28-7 lead with 5:51 left in the half.
Milford’s next scoring drive was kept alive thanks to several penalties on Anderson. Evan Baugh returned the kickoff to the Anderson 42, Milford promptly drew a pass interference call, moving the ball to the Anderson 27. A few plays later, facing third and long, Anderson is flagged for pass interference again, setting up a fourth and three. Milford converted on a run by Blake King, then scored on another run by King to cut the lead to 28-14.
Less than a minute later, the Eagles’ defense got in on the act, with Bryce Dugan leaping in the air to snag a pass from Volpenhein and returning it 45 yards for a touchdown, cutting the halftime deficit to 28-21.
Anderson appeared to strike first in the second half on a 55-yard touchdown run by Volpenhein, only to see that play wiped away with another holding call. Instead, Vopenhein found Watt for a nine-yard touchdown reception a few drives later to start the scoring in the half. Milford punted on their final drive before the end of the quarter, but a roughing the kicker call on Anderson gave the Eagles new life.
They answered just before the end of the quarter, scoring on a one-yard run by King to cut the lead to 34-28 entering the final stanza.
Milford’s first lead came at the 8:55 mark of the fourth quarter. King finds Sam Pickett for a nine-yard touchdown reception and a 35-34 Eagle lead.
Anderson marched right back down the field and scored again on a pass from Volpenhein to Watt from 16 yards out. Milford found the game-winning connection five minutes later, with Kells catching an eight-yard pass in the end zone from King. The two-point conversion failed, but Anderson’s last chance pass into the end zone sailed out of bounds.
Anderson out-gained Milford 523 yards to 398, but Milford forced four turnovers while only giving up three.
Volpenhein completed 31 passes for 341 yards and four touchdowns along with three interceptions. King tallied 227 yards passing, two touchdowns and a pick.
The ground game was also good to Anderson, with Volpenhein collecting 102 yards on 17 carries and Blaha adding 80 yards on 15 tries. King led Milford with 21 attempts for 73 yards and a pair of scores. Kells chipped in 20 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown.
Watt finished with 16 catches for 200 yards and three scores. Kells added six receptions for 57 yards and a touchdown for Milford, with Ayler (four for 43), Baugh (three for 63), Connor Foster (two for 21) and Pickett (two for 43 and a touchdown) all recording at least two receptions.
Milford head coach Tom Grippa said after the game that a win like this has been a long time coming for Milford football and the Milford community.
“We’ve worked really hard for this,” Grippa said. “This is something that has been a long time coming for the school and the city of Milford, and I’m so proud to be a part of it. I’m honored, actually, to be a part of this and I can’t wait to see what the future holds. Our football program is only going to get better.”
Grippa added that he told the team regardless of the outcome of the game, they were already winners in his eyes.
“They haven’t had a playoff team in 31 years,” Grippa said. “They’ve only had two winning seasons in 31 years. I told them, win or lose, we’re winners. We already accomplished a lot. I tried to take the pressure off them this week, I wanted them to have fun and enjoy the moment. These kind of games are few and far between. I’m really proud of the kids and the way they responded in the pressure situation.”
When asked about rallying from a 21-point deficit, Grippa pointed out that the Eagles weren’t the first team to rally late against Anderson.
“West Clermont was down 21 against them and they came back,” Grippa said. “We knew we got the kickoff in the second half, and our defense made a bunch of huge plays. That’s a great offense on a great football team. They’re going to have a shot at the Division II state championship.”
The play that helped swing the momentum in the first half was the interception by Bryce Dugan. Grippa had high praise for his lineman.
“He’s the ECC defensive player of the year, no doubt about it,” Grippa said.
Offensively, Milford began the game at a slower pace to keep the Anderson offense off the field. That changed in the second half.
“We wanted to control the ball,” Grippa said. “I probably ran the ball more than I have any other night. In the middle of the third quarter, [coach Jimmy Grippa] came up to me and said, ‘Run your offense.’ So we started throwing it, and that helped.”
Grippa credited his son, Jimmy, for putting together the defensive gameplan that resulted in three interceptions on the day. Volpenhein had thrown just six interceptions all season prior to the start of Friday night’s game.
“We had a unique game plan,” Grippa said. “My son, Jimmy, is my defensive coordinator. That’s another reason I wanted to come back to high school, to give him an opportunity. It’s been fun, it’s been a family affair. My son, Joe, is the freshman coach.”
In his first season with the Eagles, Grippa said things are going very well so far.
“It’s been great,” Grippa said. “I loved my four years at Mount St. Joseph, I learned a lot of football and was challenged, but it’s really fun to be back in high school football. I’m a teacher first, and I really love being with the kids and this is what it’s all about.”
The Eagles have one last test before the postseason. West Clermont travels to Milford with a share of the Eastern Cincinnati Conference title on the line. The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 27.