To say that the Waverly Tigers were hungry for a football playoff win would be an understatement. Now they have one.
Behind a 40-0 thrashing of the visiting Gallia Academy Blue Devils, the Waverly Tigers put on a show for the home crowd at Raidiger Field Saturday night, Nov. 2, in a Division IV Region 15 regional quarterfinal football matchup. The offense has been a strong point for the Tigers all season long. On this night, the defense was equally as potent. Gallia Academy quarterback Noah Vanco was constantly under pressure and running for his life as a host of Tigers broke into the backfield. The blitzes worked, resulting in three sacks and four interceptions for a very hungry Tiger defense.
Seniors Dakota Swepston and Kenny Cydrus teamed up for the first sack midway through the first quarter on Gallia’s third possession, resulting in a loss of 8 yards. Sophomore J.T. Barnett delivered the second sack on the next Blue Devil possession, producing a loss of 15 yards. Starting the interception party, Payton Shoemaker delivered an instantaneous lift late in the second quarter when he picked off one of Vanco’s passes and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown. Waverly’s Zeke Brown followed with an interception on Gallia’s next possession.
Freshman Wyatt Crabtree had the final sack of the game early in the fourth quarter, chasing Vanco across the field and catching him from behind for an 8-yard loss. On the very next play, Waverly’s Zeke Brown picked off a pass attempt, his second interception of the night, returning it 26 yards. Mark Stulley had an interception on Gallia Academy’s next possession, returning it 45 yards. The final possession for the Blue Devils resulted in a fumble with Swepston recovering for Waverly.
“This is for our community. It was awesome to have a home game after getting through the ups and downs of the regular season,” said Waverly coach Chris Crabtree. “Our kids fought so hard. To come out and to win in the manner that we did shows what it is supposed to look like when your team is firing on all cylinders and kids are going out and playing for each other. We had a shutout, got a lot of turnovers, and executed offensively. Our guys are playing lights out and executing.”
The Waverly defense set the tone on the opening possession of the game, forcing Gallia Academy’s Andrew Toler to punt the ball away without his team picking up a first down. Toler punted five times in the opening half. Gallia turned the ball over on downs once and lost it two other times to interceptions. Gallia Academy’s three possessions of the second half ended in two interceptions and a fumble.
“Our team executed well. Gallia Academy had some weapons that we felt we needed to take care of and be concerned about getting out on the edge with the bubble throws. They did a little bit of that early. We made some adjustments. My assistant coaching staff did an excellent job tonight and had a great game plan,” said Crabtree.
“The good thing is that our kids responded. They reacted and executed. We got pressure tonight, which makes a big difference. It made the quarterback throw some erratic throws that he didn’t want to throw. Our kids were in position to make plays. It was an overall great effort by everybody.”
Waverly was the beneficiary of two GAHS penalties on its opening possession, resulting in a quick initial first down. The Tigers moved the ball with passes from quarterback Haydn’ Shanks to Will Futhey and Phoenix Wolf, along with rushes from Payton Shoemaker and Hunter Ward. Ultimately, the drive stalled, and Waverly turned the ball over on downs at the Gallia Academy 25-yard line.
The Blue Devils went backward on their drive, getting set back 10 yards on a holding penalty. Toler eventually punted it away on 4th-and-18. The ball traveled to midfield where Shoemaker secured it with a fair catch.
Shoemaker opened the second Waverly drive with a 10-yard run and followed with a 5-yard run. Then Shanks connected with Wolf for a 3-yard gain. Shoemaker ran another 9 yards, getting the Tigers to the Gallia 23-yard line. There Shanks aired it out to a sprinting Will Futhey, who secured a leaping catch in the end zone for the first touchdown of the night, to give the Tigers a 6-0 lead with 6:25 to go in the opening quarter.
On the kickoff, Waverly senior Grayson Diener booted the ball into the end zone for a touchback, which was his second of the night, forcing the Blue Devils to start from the 20-yard line again. They were able to pick up one first down with junior James Armstrong breaking free for a 10-yard gain. An illegal motion penalty pushed the Blue Devils back to 1st-and-15. Vanco completed a pass to Cade Roberts for 7 yards, and Armstrong ran for another yard on the next play. On 3rd-and-8, Swepston and Cydrus teamed up for the sack. That made it 4th-and-16, forcing Toler to punt again.
The Tigers began their third drive on their 27-yard line. Shanks hooked up with Penn Morrison to start with a 31-yard gain to get into Blue Devil territory. He connected with Morrison again for 13 more yards, moving the ball to the Gallia Academy 29-yard line. Then Waverly went back to the ground with Shoemaker. On his first run, he gained 4 yards, but Gallia had a facemask penalty, giving Waverly 10 more yards. Shoemaker rushed for 8 more yards to get to the Gallia Academy 6-yard line. Then on 2nd-and-2, the Blue Devils were penalized for encroachment. That gave Waverly a first down and the ball on the 3-yard line. Shoemaker took the next handoff and ran those 3 yards for Waverly’s second touchdown. That made the lead 12-0 with 2:11 left in the first quarter.
That was just a warm-up for Shoemaker on a very cold night. He scored three more touchdowns, all of which came during the second quarter.
Gallia Academy’s next possession carried all the way to the end of the first quarter where J.T. Barnett produced his sack for a 15-yard loss. That resulted in a punt from Toler.
Waverly’s offense couldn’t get going on the fourth Tiger drive, forcing Diener to punt the ball from the Tiger 27-yard line. The booming punt traveled 51 yards where it was downed by the Tigers at the Gallia Academy 22-yard line.
Starting their fifth drive, the Blue Devils appeared to be picking up some steam, throwing passes to Briar Williams on the outside for a pair of big gains. Armstrong broke a 17-yard run to get into Waverly territory, where Vanco made two more passing connections with Roberts. Defensively, Waverly made a stand. Shoemaker provided a tackle for a loss of 5 yards on 2nd-and-4, making it 3rd-and-9. Vanco’s third down attempt fell incomplete. Waverly’s Penn Morrison broke up the fourth-down pass attempt.
Taking the ball on their own 28-yard line, the Tigers struck instantly. Shoemaker took the handoff from Shanks, moved through the holes created by his teammates and sprinted off for a 72-yard touchdown rumble, making the lead 18-0 with 6:07 left in the half.
Shoemaker made another big play on defense, generating his third touchdown of the night. The Blue Devils used five plays to get to the Waverly 45-yard line. There Shoemaker secured his interception, and used his speed to return it 50 yards untouched for the fourth Waverly touchdown of the night. Shoemaker added the conversion rush to make the lead 26-0 with 4:24 to go.
The pace of the game remained in Tigers’ favor. Once the Blue Devils began their next drive on the Waverly 21-yard line, Vanco attempted to get the passing game going. Zeke Brown picked it off and returned the ball 14 yards to get to the Gallia 7-yard line. Defensively, the Blue Devils were able to hold Shoemaker out of the end zone on four straight rushing attempts. He got as close as the 1-yard line.
Gallia Academy made it up to the 29-yard line before Toler was called upon to punt the ball again. He was only able to get it 15 yards where it went out of bounds at the Blue Devil 44-yard line.
The Tigers used a quick strike to end the half. Shanks connected with Will Futhey for a 43-yard gain, putting the ball on the Gallia Academy 1-yard line. There Shoemaker took the handoff and plunged across the line as time expired for his fourth touchdown of the night. Diener connected on the point-after, adding the exclamation point to the 33-0 halftime lead.
Opening the third quarter, the Blue Devils tried an onside kick. Morrison secured it for the Tigers on their own 45-yard line. That led to Waverly’s final scoring drive. It nearly stalled, but then Shoemaker broke an 11-yard run on 4th-and-1. Shanks connected with Morrison for another first down with a 9-yard gain. Then Brown had the big pickup, going for 17 yards before getting stopped on the Gallia Academy 3-yard line. There senior Hunter Ward took the handoff, evaded one defender and found his way into the end zone for Waverly’s final touchdown. Diener connected on the kick, making the lead 40-0.
Gallia’s next drive was ended by Zeke Brown with an interception and return of 21 yards. The Tigers fumbled on their first play, giving the ball back. Then Mark Stulley intercepted Vanco’s pass to the end zone, returning it 45 yards to get the Tigers to midfield.
The Tigers moved into Gallia Academy territory where the drive stalled. Diener punted the ball all the way to the Blue Devil 11-yard line. Gallia didn’t have the ball for long, fumbling it away on the second play. There Swepston made the recovery, finishing the all-around strong defensive night for the Tigers.
Swepston finished with 5 solo tackles and 1 assist, adding his shared sack with Cydrus and the fumble recovery.
“Our defense getting the backfield made it really difficult for them to throw the ball. That created bad throws which resulted in interceptions,” said senior Dakota Swepston after the game. “Whenever you put the ball in our offense’s hands, they are going to score.”
Brown had a pair of interceptions with 44 yards in the return game. He had a tackle for a loss of 1 yard, plus 4 solo tackles and 1 assist. Shoemaker finished with 6 solo tackles, 2 tackles for a combined loss of 7 yards and his interception return touchdown of 50 yards. J.T. Barnett had 6 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss of 17 yards and his 15-yard sack. Mark Stulley had 5 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss of 2 yards and his 45-yard interception return. Eight other Tigers combined for 17 tackles.
“We showed up on defense tonight. It is our first shutout of the year,” said Zeke Brown. “In week 11, I couldn’t be happier with how the defense played that side of the ball. To do it in front of the home crowd, nonetheless, it feels good. It has been a while since this home crowd has seen a playoff win.”
In fact, the last time the Waverly Tigers won a playoff game was in 2007. The 2006 team won one as well.
“It is great when we are getting turnovers. It is even greater to see my teammates like Mark and Shoe get those picks. Shoe took one to the house today,” said Brown. “It is even better to see everyone on defense doing their job so we can get picks. It is great to see.”
“A lot of guys stepped up tonight,” added Payton Shoemaker. “They really did their jobs. They did more than their jobs. Everyone did what they were supposed to do tonight and had a great night. Whenever everyone does what they are supposed to and creates turnovers, and we don’t have turnovers on the offensive end, it is going to be a good night.”
Gallia Academy was penalized 12 times for 85 yards, while Waverly had three penalties for 20 yards. Waverly had 16 first downs in the game to Gallia Academy’s 14. The Tigers also produced 348 yards of total offense, while the Blue Devils finished with 264.
The Tigers produced nearly three times the amount of yardage on the ground, finishing with 182 yards as compared to 67 by the Blue Devils. Payton Shoemaker led the ground game, carrying the ball 18 times for 143 yards and 3 touchdowns. Hunter Ward added 5 rushes for 14 yards and a touchdown.
“The coaching staff had a great game plan,” said Payton Shoemaker. “Coach Knight always does a great job with the offensive line, preparing them for the game and giving them different looks to get them ready. They did a great job executing tonight and giving me a lot of holes and creating opportunities for Haydn to spread the field. That makes it really easy for me. I just take what they give me and run.”
In the passing game, Shanks was 12-for-18 for 166 yards and a touchdown. Will Futhey was the leading receiver with 4 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. Morrison secured 3 for a gain of 48 yards, Brown caught 2 for 22, and Wolf added 2 for 10.
“We came out offensively, we executed, and we kept the pace going. We made plays when we needed to,” said Will Futhey. “That’s all we have to do. If we do our jobs, we keep going (in the playoffs).”
Gallia was led on the ground by James Armstrong, who had 13 carries for 73 yards. Noah Vanco completed 14-of-27 passes for 197 yards with 4 interceptions. Briar Williams secured 7 catches for 106 yards.
Now it is on to the next round and uncharted territory for these Tigers as they prepare to battle Bloom-Carroll in the regional semifinal round on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. at Chillicothe High School’s Herrnstein Field.
“I thought our kids did a good job trying to be focused and not letting the moment get too big. We got that monkey off our back after losing for three years in a row (in the playoffs). It is a different atmosphere,” said Crabtree. “Now we get to explore new territory and see what we can do. We will take it in stride. The fun is in the winning. We will enjoy this one. We will give the kids a little time to enjoy this for a day. Then we will get back to work.”
Waverly’s seniors know what lies ahead and how they have to prepare for the Bloom-Carroll Bulldogs.
“We need to have a great week of practice and make sure we are as mentally focused as we were this week,” said Shoemaker. “We have to come out ready to play and make as few mistakes as possible.”
“Our defense has to play exactly the way it played tonight,” added Swepston. “We have to take advantage of turnovers. When the ball is on the ground, it has to be ours. We have to keep our offense on the field.”