LEWIS CENTER — Quarterback Ethan Grunkemeyer and the Olentangy offense were dealing early and often on Friday night, and with the aid of a few timely stops by their defense, the Braves cruised to a 46-35 win over Toledo Whitmer.
Following the game, Olentangy head coach Wade Bartholomew noted Grunkemeyer had been putting a lot of pressure on himself this summer and was hoping to see his quarterback settle in as the season arrived. On Friday, Grunkemeyer appeared as cool as they come, tossing four touchdown passes and adding a rushing score in the decisive victory.
Wide receiver Andrew Leech was the beneficiary of two of the touchdown passes, and Jackson Wiley and Gavin Grover each hauled in a touchdown of their own.
After receiving the opening kickoff, Olentangy wasted no time in getting the scoring started. On the first play from scrimmage in the 2023 season, Grunkemeyer connected with Leech on a simple slant route, and Leech weaved his way 84 yards to the end zone for a touchdown and an immediate 7-0 lead.
The fireworks were just getting started, however, as Whitmer answered right back to level the score on the ensuing drive. Facing a third and 13 from their own 37, receiver Logan Frank was left all alone behind the Olentangy secondary, and Whitmer quarterback Brady Ford found him for a 63-yard touchdown to tie the score at 7-7 just three minutes into the game.
P.J. Harrison’s 3-yard touchdown run recaptured the lead for Olentangy one drive later, and his two-point conversion run had them up 15-7 with 7:07 left in the opening quarter.
The momentum was short-lived for Olentangy as Whitmer’s Alijah Shabazz fielded the ensuing kickoff at his own 1-yard line and raced 99 yards to the end zone. Whitmer head coach Ken Winters elected to kick the extra point, which was successful, and Whitmer drew within a point at 15-14 with more than six minutes still remaining in an eventful first quarter.
Whitmer came up with another huge special teams play on the ensuing kickoff after Winters called for an onside kick. The ball was recovered by a Whitmer player inside Olentangy territory, sending the Panther offense onto the field with a chance to retake the lead.
Eight plays later, it appeared Whitmer would do just that as a Ford pass to Avery Taylor had them at the Olentangy 4-yard line with a fresh set of downs. The Olentangy defense would rise to the occasion, however, turning Whitmer away on four consecutive plays to thwart the scoring opportunity.
The two teams traded stops throughout the remainder of the first quarter before Whitmer pushed ahead midway through the second quarter. A 52-yard scamper by Shabazz on a reverse set up Whitmer deep inside Olentangy territory, and two plays later, Ford connected with Frank for the duo’s second touchdown connection and a 21-15 lead.
Grunkemeyer engineered a pair of scoring drives just before the half, including an 8-yard touchdown scramble and a 14-yard touchdown pass to Wiley with just four seconds remaining in the half to send Olentangy into the break with a 29-21 lead.
A wild, back-and-forth first half gave way to a one-side second half that saw Olentangy begin to seize full control of the game. A Whitmer missed field goal on the opening possession was followed by a nearly seven-minute drive for Olentangy, and Leech capped off the 12-play drive with a 2-yard touchdown run on a touch pass from Grunkemeyer.
Olentangy never looked back from that point, and Bartholomew pointed to the early third-quarter sequence as a moment the team can continue to refer back to as they look to build on the win.
“That’s a drive you point to all year long,” he said after the game. “Not only that but the stop our kids made to hold them to a field goal attempt after a bad penalty. We talked to our kids to start the second half about getting a three-and-out. That penalty was a negative play for our defense, but to then be able to hold them off and not let them score, and then march down the field and score, that’s something we’re going to point to all year long.”
Grunkemeyer tossed his fourth touchdown of the game early in the fourth quarter, this time to Grover from 26 yards out, putting the finishing touches on the season-opening win despite some late window dressing from Whitmer.
While Bartholomew was happy to kick the season off on a positive note, the game still provided plenty of teaching moments his team will need to correct in order to continue winning.
“We just need to understand game situations better,” he said. “Knowing down and distances, knowing how big penalties can be. We have to be careful and know the situations in games. We haven’t been in this situation in a little while, so we need to learn to rope in our emotions.”
Olentangy will look to take another step forward next week when it travels north to take on Medina (1-0).
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.