Braves find form, roll past Panthers 31-10 in opener

By Paul Batterson - For the Gazette

Sam Durst knew the conversation with Olentangy High School head football coach Mark Solis was coming. Durst, who appeared to be the heir apparent to replace graduate Deeb Haber at quarterback, was losing ground to sophomore Connor Haag and he was going to be moved back to wide receiver.

“I just wasn’t getting the job done,” Durst said. “(Haag) was coming on and I played receiver last year. I knew I could play that position and make some plays. We made the move and it obviously worked out this week.”

Solis interchanged Durst and Haag at quarterback on a couple of critical series and Durst hauled in two key touchdowns as the Braves rallied from a 10-point deficit to defeat host Hilliard Darby 31-10 on Friday. The rally extended Olentangy’s win streak in openers to seven games with its last loss being a 27-6 loss to Olentangy Orange in 2009.

“(Using both Durst and Haag) was part of the game plan,” Solis said. “Connor kept coming on and on and on and making the plays but we still want Durst back there because he can do some things with his feet.

“(Durst is) a team first guy. He epitomizes our leadership and selflessness. He told me flat out he’s going to do whatever it takes to help this football team.”

After completing only one of his four passes for seven yards, Haag finished the game completing 10 of his 16 passes for 150 yards with four touchdowns. Durst, who received a dozen snaps at quarterback, caught two passes for a 17-yard touchdown and a 38-yard touchdown and sophomore receiver Caden Kaiser hauled in a 16-yard touchdown pass and a 25-yard strike for a touchdown to lead the Braves.

“I was really nervous (when they told me I was going to start at quarterback),” Haag said. “I didn’t know how I was going to do. I started to feel comfortable back there about midway through the game.

“Everything came together. The line blocked well, the receivers were catching the ball. There’s a little bit of chemistry there between Sam and I. It definitely helps having him come in every once and awhile.”

The Braves, 6-0 all-time against the Panthers but hadn’t played Darby since a 37-7 victory in 2001, looked like they were in trouble early on. Darby, a 9-3 finisher a year ago, dominated the majority of the first half and took a 10-0 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by Tony Santos with 3:12 left in the first quarter and a 40-yard field goal by Blake Sawicki with 10:27 left in the second quarter. Quarterback Cory Brooks, who executed the fake pitch to perfection, did most of the damage with a 24-yard rush to step up Santos’ first touchdown.

Olentangy, 11-2 overall last season, struggled against the ball-control-minded Panthers, who consumed nearly seven minutes on their opening drive that ended with Sawicki missing a 40-yard field goal attempt. Olentangy didn’t pick up a first down until the 9:27 mark in the second quarter. After picking up that first down, Haag led the Braves on a 13-play, 79-yard drive. He rifled a 16-yard pass to Kaiser for a touchdown with 5:27 left in the second quarter to cut Darby’s lead to 10-7.

The Braves appeared to put themselves in good position again after Olentangy defensive lineman Zach Slade scooped up a fumbled pitch at the Panthers 28. However Darby’s Austin Rayburn and Jake Schnieder broke up Haag pass to Cam Kennedy in the end zone on a fourth and 4 from the 6 with 1:16 left in the half.

“I told the kids that might be one of the most resilient wins I’ve ever been a part of,” Solis said. “We don’t see (Darby’s style of) offense a lot and frankly it’s a hard offense to prepare for. It’s hard to simulate in practice and when they are running it as well as they did tonight, it’s hard to stop.

“This team bonded together and had each others’ backs. I thought the defense really played well after the first quarter.”

By Paul Batterson

For the Gazette