Hilliard — Olentangy’s bid for a regional final appearance fell just short on Friday as the Springfield Wildcats reeled off 28 points in the fourth quarter to storm back and stun the Braves, 37-24, in a Division 1, Region 2 semifinal.
Ethan Grunkemeyer tossed two touchdown passes in the first half to help Olentangy to an 18-9 lead through two quarters, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a pair of special teams disasters late in the second half that ultimately defined the game.
Springfield running back Bay Bay Norman rushed for over 200 yards and two touchdowns, and Ohio State commit Aaron Scott added a pair of rushing scores to help push the Wildcats to the win.
Springfield got on the scoreboard quickly, taking the opening kickoff and marching deep into Olentangy territory. Da’Shawn Martin’s 43-yard diving catch moved the ball to the Olentangy 4-yard line, but Springfield was unable to find the end zone.
Brayden Herron’s 21-yard field goal was good, giving Springfield an early 3-0 lead.
Olentangy wasted no time answering the early Springfield points. Set up at his own 32-yard line to begin the possession, Grunkemeyer engineered a nine-play, 68-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-3 lead. An 18-yard completion to Sam Uhlenhake got the drive started, and it was punctuated by a 15-yard scoring strike from Grunkemeyer to Gavin Grover.
A costly special teams error by Springfield led to an additional three points for Olentangy early in the second quarter. Lined up to punt at his own 38, the snap went over DaeDae Stapleton’s head and rolled toward the Olentangy end zone. Stapleton corraled the ball at the 5-yard line but was tackled by Olentangy linebacker Lucas Jackson to turn the ball over on downs.
Olentangy couldn’t fully capitalize on the mistake, though, settling for a field goal and a 10-3 lead with 8:52 left in the first half.
The lead was cut to 10-9 when Springfield quarterback Brent Upshaw found Duncan Bradley III for a 14-yard touchdown. The extra point was unsuccessful.
Olentangy appeared poised to extend its lead on the ensuing drive, quickly moving into the red zone. In a bit of trickeration, Grunkemeyer was on the receiving end of a touchdown pass thrown by Jackson Wiley. However, the play was wiped out by an offensive pass interference penalty.
Three plays later, the scoring opportunity was thwarted when Grunkemeyer was intercepted by Scott in the back of the end zone.
Olentangy again found itself back in position to extend the lead just before halftime after Jackson intercepted Upshaw at the 40-yard line with 40 seconds remaining. Grunkemeyer took advantage of the additional opportunity, finding Zach Griffith up the sideline for a 37-yard touchdown.
The two-point conversion was also successful, sending Olentangy into the break with an 18-9 lead.
A missed 41-yard field goal by Matthew Tobias ended a once-promising Olentangy drive to open the second half, and the special teams miscues were just getting started for the Braves.
Still holding an 18-9 lead in the final minute of the third quarter, Olentangy lined up to punt from its own 28-yard line. Springfield’s Quenta Wafer Jr. broke through the line relatively untouched, however, and Cooper Tracy’s punt was blocked. Wafer also recovered the loose ball, setting Springfield up with a prime opportunity at the Olentangy 15-yard line to begin the fourth quarter.
Scott, primarily a cornerback, took a wildcat snap and knifed into the end zone from five yards out to capitalize on the blocked punt and cut into the deficit. Upshaw found Martin in the end zone on the two-point try, and suddenly, Olentangy’s lead was down to a single point at 18-17.
With all the momentum firmly behind the Springfield sideline, the Olentangy offense delivered a crucial response on the ensuing drive.
After a good return by Kaden Gebhardt gave his team quality field position near midfield, Olentangy needed just five plays to extend its lead. Andrew Wilber’s 28-yard touchdown run capped off the drive, and despite an unsuccessful two-point try, Olentangy had a 24-17 lead with 7:36 left in the fourth quarter.
The lead proved to be shortlived, though, as a 20-yard carry by Norman and a 50-yard completion from Upshaw to Martin quickly moved Springfield to the Olentangy 5-yard line. Norman finished off the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run, and a successful extra point knotted the score at 24-24 with 5:56 remaining in the game.
Complete disaster struck on the ensuing kickoff as Olentangy failed to field the kick in a game-altering blunder that proved devastating. As the live ball bounced near the sideline at the 15-yard line, multiple Olentangy players looked on as Wafer pounced on it and raced to the end zone. While OHSAA rules prevent the ball from being advanced, Springfield regained possession with a golden chance to take its first lead since the game’s opening possession.
Scott ensured Springfield did just that as he raced into the end zone from 13 yards out for his second touchdown to give his team a 31-24 lead with 5:03 remaining.
Despite the stunning turn of events, plenty of time remained for Olentangy to tie the game, but a three-and-out quickly gave the ball back to Springfield. Norman delivered the dagger on the first play of the ensuing possession, outrunning the Olentangy defense 76 yards to the end zone to put the game away.
Following the game, Olentangy head coach Wade Bartholomew lamented his team’s inability to capitalize on its opportunities while giving too many to Springfield.
“We gave them a punt block, the kickoff, a couple of bad field position punts, and some not-great drives,” he said. “I just think we didn’t capitalize on our opportunities on offense to change the field position … In these games, you have to capitalize on your opportunities. And special teams play a big role. A blocked punt and a miscommunication on our part as a staff (on the kickoff) to give up another score, when you flip the momentum for a team like (Springfield) that knows how to play in these atmospheres, it makes a world of difference.”
Bartholomew said of the disastrous failed kickoff return, “It’s coaching, 100%. We gotta do a better job of teaching our kids football 101. That’s 100% on us as coaches. We gotta let them know there’s a difference between a punt and a kickoff.”
With the win, Springfield (7-6) advances to take on Dublin Coffman in the Region 2 final. Olentangy finishes its season at 11-2.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.