Although it wasn’t the result the Waverly Tigers wanted, they were able to leave Indian Hill’s Tomahawk Stadium with their heads held high Saturday evening.

Waverly ultimately lost its Division IV Region 16 regional football quarterfinal 63-28 to the hosting Indian Hill Braves. But the scoreboard didn’t tell the whole story. The Tigers would have needed to play a perfect game to defeat the Braves. But it didn’t matter. They just kept battling. After finding themselves down 28-0, the Tigers fought back and made the game competitive the rest of the way.

“They played a little more outside zone up to this point, so they had a very good game plan against us. We put ourselves in a hole early,” said Waverly coach Chris Crabtree after the game.

“I’m proud of our kids because we fought and showed that we were capable of going out and scoring points. Unfortunately, every time we gained a little foothold, we gave up a play here and there. They did a good job on all facets of the game — special teams, offense and defense. Unfortunately, we came up short, but we went out fighting.”

It was announced during the game that 11,602 was the total attendance. The visitor side bleachers were were a bit cramped for the number of Waverly fans who made the two-plus hour trip to Indian Hill, so some of the Tiger faithful ended up sitting on the home side.

Statistically, the ground game of the Braves generated 330 yards, while the defense limited Waverly to 51 yards on the ground. Waverly’s passing game netted 196 yards, outdistancing Indian Hill by 70 yards in that category. Waverly produced 15 first downs, while the Braves had 21.

“Unfortunately, in the region we are in, we need to go out and make plays all over the place,” said Crabtree. “Coming in, we knew we had to stop the big plays, and unfortunately, we gave up too many of those.”

The Braves had the first possession and scored quickly, showing some of the team speed they possessed. Demetrius Baylor collected Grayson Diener’s kick at the 3-yard line and returned it 25 yards before getting tackled by Michael Goodman. Baylor followed by taking the first handoff of the game and breaking a 42-yard run before getting tracked down by Waverly senior Cobe Marquez. Marquez tried to make another play, deflecting a pass thrown by Indian Hill quarterback Cole Dein. But the ball popped up in the air and was caught by Brave Amari Whitehead at the Waverly 1-yard line. On the very next play, John Williams took the handoff and scored from one yard out. Luke Jungkunz connected on the kick, putting Indian Hill up 7-0 with 10:26 left in the opening quarter.

The Tigers started their first drive on their own 20-yard line after Jungkunz’s kick sailed into the end zone for a touchback. Waverly wasn’t able to make any progress, going backward. On fourth-and-14, Payton Shoemaker punted the ball 38 yards to the Waverly 48-yard line. Tre Lopez secured it and returned it 10 yards before getting tackled by Will Futhey.

Defensively, the Tigers were starting to adjust, as they limited the Braves to short gains. Isaac Heigley, Easton Wolf, Shoemaker and Zeke Brown all recorded tackles on the drive before Tre Lopez was able to score on a seven-yard run. After Jungkunz’s kick, the lead was 14-0 with 6:53 left in the first quarter.

The Tigers found the spark they needed in the form of a 60-yard kickoff return from Shoemaker, getting all the way to the Indian Hill 39-yard line. That ignited the Waverly faithful and gave the team some confidence. Unfortunately for the Tigers, quarterback Haydn’ Shanks had his first pass from scrimmage intercepted by Whitehead. Then Whitehead returned it 19 yards to the Indian Hill 39-yard line before getting tackled by Clay Minor.

Despite the turn of events, Waverly’s defense went back to work. Ethan Brooker, Brown and Marquez all recorded solo tackles on the first three plays. Marquez deflected another pass intended for Whitehead. Then Shoemaker and Brown combined to tackle Baylor in the backfield for a 1-yard loss. Dein’s next pass attempt was deflected by Phoenix Wolf, forcing Indian Hill to punt.

A holding penalty set the Tigers back on the opening play of their drive. Once again, Waverly couldn’t pick up a first down. Shoemaker booted a 48-yard punt to the Indian Hill 35-yard line.

Indian Hill attacked with a series of short runs before Dein completed a 29-yard pass to Jalen Thornton where Phoenix Wolf made the tackle. Three plays later and in the opening seconds of the second quarter, Will Klekamp closed the drive with a one-yard plunge. Jungkunz’s kick was good, putting the Braves ahead 21-0 with 11:47 left in the half.

The two teams traded punts before Indian Hill scored again when Baylor broke a 62-yard run to the end zone with 6:22 left in the half. Jungkunz connected on the kick, making the advantage 28-0. During that sequence of exchanges, the Tigers stripped the ball from Dein when he was scrambling for yardage. But the ball rolled out of bounds, allowing the Braves to keep possession.

Waverly finally found the success it needed. Sitting at the Waverly 35-yard line, Shanks connected with Easton Wolf through the air for a 30-yard gain, getting the Tigers to the Indian Hill 35-yard line. The drive nearly stalled there. With the Tigers facing fourth-and-six, Shanks fired the ball toward Phoenix Wolf. Pass interference was called on the Braves, giving Waverly the ball on the 16-yard line. From there, Shoemaker took the handoff from Shanks and covered all 16 yards for Waverly’s first touchdown. Diener’s kick was good, cutting the score to 28-7 with 3:53 left in the half.

“Unfortunately, we got off to a slow start. Then we did a nice job of getting the running game established with Payton. Once we got settled down, we were able to move the ball a little bit and get going,” said Crabtree.

“We had plans coming in, and we had a plan B with defensive adjustments we needed to make. Offensively, we just needed to settle in. We needed to figure out how they were going to come at us and how we need to block them up front. On the defensive side of the ball, it is always a chess match. You have to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. We gave it all that we had tonight.”

Not wanting Waverly to gain any momentum, the Braves responded with a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown from Whitehead. Jungkunz’s kick made the lead 35-7 with 3:38 to play.

“Whitehead hadn’t played a lot up to this point,” said Crabtree. “Last week was the first time we saw him on film. He is a very skilled athlete.”

The Tigers came right back with another touchdown of their own. Easton Wolf added two more huge receptions to set the Tigers up in good position. The first one came on third-and-five. Wolf switched sides of the field several times as he evaded defenders to cover 22 yards. On the very next play, Shanks aimed for the corner of the end zone where Wolf won an aerial battle with Whitehead for ball possession. The gain netted 32 yards and brought the Tigers to the Indian Hill one-yard line. Shoemaker finished the drive with a 1-yard plunge on the very next play. Diener’s kick made the score 35-14 with 2:13 to go in the half.

Waverly tried an onside kick in hopes of scoring again before the half to trim the deficit to two touchdowns. But the ball didn’t go 10 yards before the Tigers tried to recover it, ultimately allowing Indian Hill to start the drive on the Waverly 48-yard line.

“We gambled at times because when you are down like that, you decide you may as well try to get the ball back. But when it doesn’t work out, they end up with another score here or there,” said Crabtree. “The bottom line is that we wanted to be as aggressive as we could on defense to try and get some stops so our offense could work.”

Despite the short field that Indian Hill had, Waverly’s defense was able to successfully get stops. An offensive pass interference call went against Indian Hill, and Dakota Swepston added a tackle for loss to help keep the Braves from getting a first down. At that point, the Braves faced third-and-23. Baylor gained nine yards on a rush before getting tackled by Shoemaker. That made it fourth-and-14, forcing a punt. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the short punt bounced up and hit a Waverly player, making it a live ball that the Braves recovered on the WHS 28-yard line. That led to Indian Hill scoring the final touchdown of the half.

Waverly’s defense continued to fight with Shoemaker and Futhey combining for a tackle for loss of six yards as Indian Hill made it into the red zone. Two pass plays got the Braves to the two-yard line where John Williams closed the drive with a two-yard rush. Jungkunz’s kick made the lead 42-14 with 25 seconds left in the half. Waverly attempted to get some positive yardage before the break, but couldn’t move into Indian Hill territory, bringing the half to a close.

Coming out of the break, Waverly had the ball on offense to start the third quarter. Marquez produced a kickoff return of 20 yards to get his team to the Waverly 25-yard line. The Tigers ran five plays to push their way to the Indian Hill 46-yard line before the drive stalled when Shanks was sacked on a fourth-and-three play.

Starting on Waverly’s 48-yard line, Indian Hill used a sequence of short gains before Baylor broke a 26-yard touchdown run with 7:05 left in the third quarter. After Jungkunz’ kick, the lead was 49-14.

Once again, Waverly came fighting back. Shoemaker generated a 31-yard kickoff return to the Waverly 48-yard line. Then Shanks completed a 25-yard pass to Shoemaker, getting the ball to the Indian Hill 27-yard line. A holding penalty sent the Tigers backward 15 yards, but Shoemaker made it up with an 18-yard reception. Shanks had a third down pass batted down that would have been a touchdown in the hands of Phoenix Wolf. Facing fourth-and-10, Shanks completed a 12-yard pass to Marquez to keep the drive going. Then Phoenix Wolf had his opportunity, securing a 15-yard pass from Shanks to cut the lead to 49-21 with 3:02 left in the third quarter.

Another short kickoff by Diener followed as the Tigers tried to recover, but the Braves were able to get on the ball and retain possession. Tackles from Macayne Bock, Easton Wolf, Brown and Swepston followed. Then Brooker provided a fourth down stop at the Waverly 31-yard line to get the ball back for the Tigers.

Waverly couldn’t make much progress offensively and ended up turning the ball over on downs at the Waverly 31-yard line when Shanks’ fourth down pass to Easton Wolf fell incomplete.

It didn’t take the Braves long to strike with the short field. Defensively, Isaac Heigley stopped Dein’s initial rush. But Dein went to the air on the next play and connected with Tre Lopez for a 31-yard touchdown strike. Jungkunz’s kick made the score 56-21 with 9:42 remaining.

The Tigers looked to answer as they used rushes from Shoemaker and Brooker to get into Indian Hill territory. A face mask penalty against the Braves gave the Tigers 15 more yards, bringing them to the Indian Hill 30-yard line. Shanks completed another pass to Easton Wolf, who gained 13 yards before having the ball stripped away from him by Whitehead. The Braves recovered the ball on the Indian Hill 17-yard line with 7:09 left to play.

The Braves didn’t keep the ball for long. On the very first rush, they fumbled and Brooker recovered for the Tigers on the Indian Hill 15-yard line. Then Waverly turned the turnover into points when Shanks completed a 15-yard pass to Phoenix Wolf for the final WHS touchdown. Diener’s kick cut the lead to 56-28 with 6:28 to go.

Indian Hill put together a long final drive and scored when Dein completed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Whitehead with 1:02 to play. Jungkunz’s kick made the score 63-28. Waverly ran one final play on offense before time expired.

“This was a season of us overcoming adversity and never quitting. This is probably one of the most fun groups I have ever coached in a sense that they always played and worked hard in practice. We never had to get on them,” said Crabtree.

“With the injuries and some of the tragedies we suffered this year, and being able to have to go against the caliber of teams we face in this region, we took everything in stride. We gave it all we had. I am most proud of the fact that these guys fought with everything they had and always gave it their best.”

Senior Easton Wolf turned in another receiving game of 100 or more yards. Officially, he had six receptions for 104 yards. That brings him to 1,196 yards for the season on 59 receptions with 12 touchdowns. Sophomore Phoenix Wolf added 30 yards and two touchdowns to his total, bringing him to 37 catches for 484 yards and 11 touchdowns for the 2018 season.

“Those guys go out and play hard every Friday night,” said Crabtree of the Wolf brothers. “I’m very proud to have those guys on our team and I am glad to have one of them coming back next year.”

For the Tigers, they achieved their goal of securing a historic third straight playoff appearance, which had not been done previously. Playing in Region 16 with city schools from Cincinnati, Dayton and Springfield hasn’t been an easy task, but the Tigers have progressed in competitiveness each season.

“I think we made some big strides. Once we got rolling tonight (against Indian Hill), our kids realized we were capable of playing with them. The result isn’t what we wanted. We would have loved to be playing in week 12,” said Crabtree. “Again, it is another step in the process. Our goal is to get back here again and keep striving to get to week 12.”

The Tigers end the year at 9-2 overall. They completed Southern Ohio Conference Division II play in second place at 3-1.

Email at jbillings@newswatchman.com; follow on Twitter @ Julie_Billings

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