SIDNEY — Two Elliott Gilardi runs helped Lehman Catholic claim its third consecutive Northwest Central Conference title with a 21-7 win over Riverside on Thursday at Sidney Memorial Stadium.
Gilardi, a senior quarterback, had a 52-yard run in the first half that set up the Cavaliers’ first touchdown and scored on a 51-yard run in the fourth quarter to help put away a win in the de facto NWCC championship game. Lehman finishes regular season 7-3 overall and 6-1 in NWCC play, while Riverside finishes 6-4 and 5-2.
Lehman coach Dick Roll told the team after the game that the season is one of the most rewarding of his decades-long coaching career.
“It’s rewarding because of where we started and the struggles we had early and just the way we got better,” Roll said. “That’s what we look for — improvement. These kids improved and worked hard. At the beginning of the season I said we would win between four and eight (games), and it depended how hard they worked.
“They worked extremely hard and we’re extremely excited for those kids.”
The Cavaliers, which started the season 0-2, have under 25 players healthy right now — about 10 less than normal. At times this season, they’ve had less.
“A lot guys and people coming into this year doubted us. We were underdogs,” Gilardi said. “I think we proved ourselves this season. A lot of guys stepped up to help us accomplish this tonight. It’s a great team win.”
The Cavaliers led 14-7 at halftime and pulled away in the fourth quarter. Gilardi faked a handoff and ran toward the visitor’s sideline, then sprinted downfield for a 51-yard touchdown run with 4:22 left in the fourth. Senior kicker Michael Denning hit the extra point to put the Cavaliers ahead 21-7.
“They were both reads to the outside,” Gilardi said of his TD and big first-half run. “I saw the linebacker and the end go out, so I took the middle and just ran up the sidelines.”
Riverside quarterback Joel Cotterman fumbled deep in Lehman territory on the next play and senior linebacker Logan Bunker recovered. The Cavaliers turned the ball over on down with 53 seconds left at Riverside’s 7, but Cotterman soon had a pass picked off by Gilardi near midfield.
“We made some big plays offensively and defensively, and just like last week (against Lima Perry), the kids competed,” Roll said. “We challenged them last week, and I basically told them I failed to make them competitive this year. They answered that last week, and they answered that again tonight.”
Both teams had already clinched playoff berths in Division VII, Region 28 heading into Thursday’s game. Lehman will likely finish as the No. 5 seed, while Riverside will likely be No. 7. The squads will find out their official seed and first-round opponent when official playoff pairings are released by the Ohio High School Athletic Association on Sunday.
“We’ve just got keep doing what we’ve been doing all year: fight through the pain,” Gilardi said of Lehman’s postseason plans. “We’ve got low numbers, but that’s not stopping us. We’re going to keep pushing forward, and we’re all excited and looking forward to next week.”
The teams traded punts to start the second half, then Cotterman fumbled on a scramble late in the third quarter, which Lehman’s Drew Barhorst fell on at the Pirates’ 30-yard line.
Lehman turned the ball over on downs with 11:27 left in the fourth quarter at Riverside’s 21, but the Pirates had to punt a few minutes later. Gilardi’s big TD run on the next drive sealed it.
Lehman quickly took a lead in the first half.
After Riverside kicked off with a squib boot that gave the Cavaliers their ball at their own 42. Gilardi faked a handoff and ran 52 yards a few plays later to move the ball to the 2, then Logan Bunker ran it in two plays later to put Lehman ahead 7-0 with 10:33 left in the first quarter.
“That’s by design,” Roll said of Gilardi’s runs on reads. “We had canned that play and brought it back last week for Perry. He ran that well last year but hadn’t run it well this year until recently. That’s another improvement — just another growing-up moment.”
After the teams traded punts, Riverside drove from its own 20 to Lehman’s 27 but turned the ball over on downs.
The Cavaliers were forced to punt on its next drive, and Riverside quickly drove into Lehman territory. The Pirates were pinned back on their own 46, but Cotterman completed a 25-yard pass to Ollie Jacobs on a third down to move it to Lehman’s 29.
Roby took the handoff on the next play, ran right and outran Lehman’s defensive backs for a touchdown to tie it up 7-7 with 5:07 left in the second quarter.
It didn’t take Lehman long to drive into Riverside territory. On a third down, Gilardi ran up the middle but quickly moved away and scrambled right, then threw a 10-yard pass to Tyler Sollman for a first down to the 3. Bunker then scored on a 3-yard touchdown run on the next play to give Lehman a 14-7 lead with 1:30 left in the second quarter.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.