Dru Johnson of Van Wert breaks into open space in their matchup with Cincinnati Wyoming on Saturday. (DHI Media/Pat Agler)
Dru Johnson of Van Wert breaks into open space in their matchup with Cincinnati Wyoming on Saturday. (DHI Media/Pat Agler)

PIQUA — For 3rd-ranked Cincinnati Wyoming it was business as usual Saturday night, the Cowboys’ third straight trip to the Division IV state semifinals, including a championship in 2018. Wyoming had beaten top-ranked Clinton-Massie in last Saturday’s regional final.

Unranked Van Wert (10-1), however, isn’t intimidated by long trips or higher-ranked teams. The Cougars pulled out another one, 28-20, to advance to the state championship game against unranked Mentor Lake Catholic (8-2) next Sunday at noon at Fortress Obetz in Columbus. The Lake Catholic Cougars edged 6th-ranked Bloom-Carroll 17-10 in Saturday night’s other semifinal, that one at New Philadelphia.

Cincinnati Wyoming, champion of the Cincinnati Hills League, finishes its season at 9-1.

Van Wert’s only other trip to the championship came in Division III in 2000 and ended with a heart-breaking 27-26 double-overtime loss to Canton Central Catholic.

“It’s special for our program, our community, just everyone,” said Van Wert head coach Keith Recker. “Everyone’s so proud of this football team, and they should be, because they put in so much work to get here.

I thought this was a great atmosphere to get us ready — against a great football team, a great stadium, a great crowd — I think our guys will be ready to go when we get to Columbus.”

This one came down to some big plays in the fourth quarter. After grinding out the yardage little by little in the third period, the Cowboys broke a 14-14 tie on the first play of the fourth via a 9-yard pass from senior left-handed quarterback Brennan Pagan to senior speedster Joop Mitchell — 20-14, Wyoming. However, the PAT kick by left-footed senior Spencer Gonzalez hit the right upright and fell short, a result that would prove to be significant.

On the next series, Van Wert started at its own 36 and quickly struck gold with three straight completions in the flat from senior quarterback Owen Treece to sophomore Maddix Crutchfield for 7, 6, and 5 yards. Treece then hit Dru Johnson in the left flat, and the lightning fast senior sprinted down the sideline 46 yards to tie it at 20-20. Sophomore Damon McCracken’s extra point made it 21-20 with l0:51 left in the game.

Wyoming, of course, bounced right back, grinding out the yardage, mainly from 1000-yard rusher, sophomore CJ Hester. The Cowboys, assisted by a pass interference penalty, got to the Cougar 20, but three straight passing misfires gave the ball back to Van Wert on the Cougar 15 with 5:37 left. After picking up one first down, however, the Cougs punted from their 32, and Johnson’s punt bounced all the way to the Cowboy 12 before rolling dead.

The Cowboys went nowhere from there and misfired on 4th-and-5 from their own 7 with 1:35 left. Perhaps deliberately, Wyoming allowed Treece a 15-yard TD scamper, and McCracken’s PAT made it 28-20 at 0:45, but gave the Cowboys another possession. An interception by Van Wert junior Connor Pratt ended all hope for Wyoming however.

Van Wert had the first possession of the game and went from its own 28 to the Cowboy 13 before turning it over on downs. Wyoming, primarily behind the running of Hester and Pagan, went the distance in 14 plays to take the lead on a 1-yard run by Pagan and a PAT kick by Gonzales, 7-0 with 1:07 left in the first quarter.

The Cougars’ next possession started with two Cowboy penalties — personal foul and face mask — putting the ball on Wyoming’s 46. Nine plays later, junior Nate Jackson scored from the 1, and McCracken’s boot tied it at 7 with 10:54 left in the second quarter.

Wyoming promptly marched down the field again little by little, and Hester’s 3-yard run followed by Gonzales’s PAT had the Cowboys up 14-7 at 5:30. However, Van Wert trumped that with a march of its own, capped off by Jackson’s 1-yard TD run and McCracken’s kick — 14-all at 3:25.

Wyoming totally dominated the third quarter. Van Wert only had one possession, and that one lasted a minute and a half before Hester intercepted a Treece pass, which started another Cowboy march, this one ending with the scoring pass (and missed PAT) mentioned earlier.

Both defenses were outstanding, allowing neither team to amass the yardage that it has become accustomed to.

Unofficially, Hester ended up with only 56 yards on 23 carries, and Pagan had 45 yards on 13 rushes. Mitchell was the Cowboys’ biggest threat with 6 receptions and 102 yards.

Treece ended the night with 18 carries for 57 yards, although he lost several yards by having to take a knee three times near the end. He hit on 13 of 21 passes for 153 yards with one interception. Jackson rushed 9 times for 43 yards and caught 4 passes for 15 yards. Crutchfield had 4 catches for 21 yards, and Johnson caught 3 for 78 yards.

The big challenges for the Van Wert defense were the running of Hester and the receiving of Mitchell. The Cougars were up to those challenges, particularly after making some halftime adjustments.

“They (the Cowboys) were all we thought they were gonna be and more,” said Recker. “Great team, great athletes, great coaches. Our guys did a very good job adjusting. We had to make some adjustments on the fly to cover some things, and I thought our guys did an exceptional job of that.”

Summary:

Wyoming 7 7 0 6 - 20

Van Wert 0 14 0 14 - 28

First downs — CW 16, VW 12

Rushing (att/yds) — CW 41/118, VW 28/93

Passing (att/comp/int) — CW 27/16/1, VW 21/13/1

Passing yards — CW 177, VW 153

Total yards — CW 295, VW 246

1st Quarter —

1:07 — Brennan Pagan (CW) — 8-yard run. PAT kick by Spencer Gonzales. 7-0.

2nd Quarter —

10:54 — Nate Jackson (VW) — 1-yard run. PAT kick by Damon McCracken. 7-7.

5:33 — CJ Hester (CW) — 3-yard run. PAT kick by Gonzales. 14-7.

3:25 — Jackson (VW) — 1-yard run. PAT kick by McCracken. 14-14.

4th Quarter —

11:53 — Joop Mitchell (CW) — 9-yard pass from Pagan. PAT kick no good. 20-14.

10:51 — Dru Johnson (VW) — 46-yard pass from Owen Treece. PAT kick by McCracken. 20-21.

0:45 — Treece (VW) — 15-yard run. PAT kick by McCracken. 20-28.