Island bound: St. Marys returning to Wheeling to defend state title

BAKER — A chance for a repeat state champion in Class A is alive and very well after St. Marys downed East Hardy here Friday night.

In a rematch of last year’s state title game, the fifth-seeded Blue Devils ended the three-year home winning streak of the top-seeded Cougars with a 27-21 upset victory.

The teams battled all evening in what easily could have been a state championship game. Back and forth each squad went, trading the lead with East Hardy holding on to a 21-14 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.

However, St. Marys took control in the final period of play. Jaiden Smith, wanting another state title, scored on runs of 12 and 17 yards on two eight-play drives to give St. Marys a 27-21 lead with 1:25 left in the game.

The talented running back had been held in check in the first half to the tune of 24 yards on six carries, but exploded after halftime for 139 yards on 18 totes.

“I just saw green,” said Smith on his game-winning run. “Everyone on offense did a great job blocking for me. I pretty much went untouched, so the credit goes out to them.”

This wasn’t the only bit of celebration for the purple and gold rusher on the evening. Smith eclipsed Mike Cox’s school career rushing record after he gained 162 yards on 24 carries. In fact, Cox congratulated Smith and the team after the win on a pre-recorded DVD shown in the locker room.

“It means a lot to me, but it means a lot to the team also because I couldn’t have done it without them,” said Smith of the record.

Back on the field, a Robbie Gonzalez missed extra point opened the door for the Cougars to try and pull out their second comeback win of the postseason after a 14-10 victory against No. 16 Williamstown in the opening round.

“I just told the guys if we can go down and score, we can win the game,” said East Hardy head coach Chad Williams of the missed PAT. “When we had that opportunity, that is all we were thinking about.”

Clay Skovron and the rest of the Cougars began their final drive at the East Hardy 35-yard line.

St. Marys’ Isaak Mooney batted away a first-and-10 pass, before Skovron’s second-down pass fell incomplete. The Cougars finally completed a pass on third down, but it didn’t go very far as Jeffrey Mills only picked up two yards for a fourth-and-8.

A 12-yard snag by Brett Tharp gave East Hardy a first down at its own 49 with 48 seconds remaining, but his teammates and he didn’t have similar luck on fourth-and-10. Skovron’s pass to Mills fell incomplete as the St. Marys’ sideline exploded in jubilation.

The Cougars’ final drive was a microcosm of their second half. After completing 7 of 15 passes for 190 yards in the opening period, East Hardy receivers caught just 8 of 22 Skovron attempts in the second half for 89 yards.

Aden Funkhouser, who had three catches for 106 yards including a 21-yard scoring reception in the first half, was limited to just one catch for 14 yards after halftime. Tharp, a likely all-state first-team receiver, was held in check with just three catches for 59 yards and no touchdowns.

Tharp was double-teamed most of the evening. But when he wasn’t, Zac Long proved up to the task of taking him away as a legitimate threat.

“They did great,” said Smith of the St. Marys secondary. “We couldn’t have asked them to play a better game.”

The Blue Devils’ Matt Eichhorn, who was largely shut down in the running game, made his presence felt on defense. The senior picked off one pass in each half. Anthony Wince also tipped several passes away from the awaiting hands of Cougar receivers, who presented a challenge to all the defensive backs with their ability to go up and catch the ball.

East Hardy led 13-7 after one half and looked poised to ride a strong defense to the state title game for the third year in a row. Ryan Rogers sacked St. Marys’ quarterback Eric Illar twice, while all the Cougars shut down a feared Blue Devils’ rushing attack to the tune of 41 yards on 21 carries.

But similar to the Doddridge County game in the first round, both the St. Marys offense and defense asserted itself in the second half to guarantee the Blue Devils return to Wheeling.

“This is great,” said Smith on going back to The Island. “Words can’t describe the excitement we have. We are ready to go.”

Mike Young and 10th-seed Wheeling Central await the Blue Devils after the Maroon Knights dismantled No. 11 Summers County 42-14. Game time is 7:30 p.m. Saturday evening at Wheeling Island Stadium.