MINERVA - Sometimes, the first loss is the worst. South Range found that out the hard way.
With a spot in the Division VI, Region 19 final on the line, the second-seeded Raiders (11-1) dropped a nailbiter, 35-28, to third-seeded Mogadore on Friday at Dr. Robert H. Hines Stadium.
South Range's high-octane offense was limited to a season low 28 points and four turnovers. In the preceding 11 games, the Raiders turned the ball over seven times.
Even with the offensive struggles, South Range was in striking distance throughout the game. Mogadore led 28-21 entering the fourth quarter before a 3-yard touchdown run by Brandon Berry extended the lead to 14 points with two minutes remaining.
The Wildcats still weren't comfortable with that cushion and for good reason. South Range quarterback Ryan Miller found Bryce Allen for a 37-yard strike with a minute left on the clock to give the Raiders life.
"There were momentum swings in this game," Mogadore coach Matt Adorni said. "I wasn't in control until that clock hit zero. They can score in a hurry and a have a lot of explosive players."
After an onside kick failed, the Raiders forced a quick three-and-out to get the ball back with less than 30 seconds remaining. After an incomplete pass on first down, Miller tossed an interception - his third of the game - to Mogadore safety Brendon Schrock to end the game. Miller had thrown three interceptions for the entire season.
"I'm very proud of them," South Range coach Dan Yeagley said of his team. "They brought South Range back to being undefeated and ITCL champs. They can never forget that."
The Raiders, however, will be left wondering what could have been after a slew of injuries to key players and failed fourth-down conversions. In the second quarter, senior wide receiver Zach Thorpe left with an apparent ankle injury and missed the rest of the game. Thorpe finished with two catches for 32 yards.
"You take a great two-way player out, that's crucial," Yeagley said. "You lose someone like that who's a senior and a leader, it hurts both sides of the ball."
Thorpe was not the only major contributor that was limping for South Range. Senior running back Billy Goodall saw limited action on offense after suffering an injury in last week's win over Cuyahoga Heights and eventually left after taking a hit to the head. Goodall rushed five times for 40 yards and a touchdown and had two receptions for 24 yards.
Even then, Yeagley viewed the year as a success.
"We're here in week 12," Yeagley said. "We made it to the Sweet 16. We just came across a very good team. (Mogadore) didn't make mistakes, but we made a few."
At the end of the third quarter, South Range appeared to gain a swell of momentum. After Miller threw an interception to Mogadore linebacker Jeremy Hugg, the Raiders held and forced a Wildcats field goal attempt, which Mogadore kicker Riley Jones badly missed.
Early in the fourth quarter, South Range got another boost when Mogadore quarterback Anthony Ricci was stopped on a fourth down attempt. The tide had turned in the Raiders' favor, but that didn't concern Mogadore.
"I felt in control the whole time," Ricci said. "We've always learned to keep our heads up and never quit."
Forced into a fourth down on their own 30 with five minutes left, the Raiders took one of the biggest risks of the game. With star running back Joe Alessi on the sidelines, Goodall took the snap and was promptly met by a wall of Wildcats defenders for a loss.
"If we give them the ball, they're going to have it for five minutes anyhow," Yeagley explained. "That was something we had to do. If we got it, we'd still be down seven with the ball. We made a gamble and it didn't pay off."
Three minutes later, Berry dove into the end zone for his 18th touchdown of the year, effectively putting the game out of reach.
Mogadore was led by Ricci, who scored three touchdowns for the night. Ricci completed nine of 18 passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for a touchdown as well.
"I thought (Ricci) did a great job tonight," Adorni said. "We asked him to throw a bit more than what he's been."
"Their defense was very good," Ricci said. "We all stepped up in every position."
Another major contributor for the Wildcats was junior running back Dominik Pizzino. Pizzino finished with four rushes for 23 yards and a touchdown as well as three catches for 25 yards and a score. Pizzino also returned the second-half kickoff to the Raiders 31 to set up a Mogadore touchdown.
After being ruled ineligible for the first five games of the season due to a residential conflict, Pizzino has seen his role increase with Mogadore, including a punt return for a touchdown last week against Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph's.
"It's a new policy," Adorni explained. "They tried to find a home so he wouldn't have to sit out. He's really been a boost for us."
Mogadore will advance to face undefeated Kirtland in the regional final next week. The Hornets routed St. Thomas Aquinas 49-21 for their 12th straight win on Friday. Kirtland lost in the Div. V championship, 10-9, to Coldwater last season.
"They're so good," Adorni said. "We're just happy to have a chance to go play 'em. We're going to let it all hang out."
The curtain closes on South Range's stellar season - one that can only be deemed a success. After failing to reach the playoffs in the past two seasons, the Raiders picked up a home playoff win. Though that elusive first appearance in the state semifinals is no longer attainable this year, Yeagley believes a core of underclassmen, including standouts Miller, Alessi, Goodall and David McCabe will take this experience and build upon it for next season.
"The seniors showed those underclassmen what it takes," Yeagley said. "They showed 'em the work ethic and what it's like to be a South Range Raider football player."
After holding opponents to an average of 17.7 points in the regular season, South Range gave up 42 and 35 points in two playoff games.
It was the sixth time South Range gave up at least 28 points this season, though the first time the Raiders lost.
South Range scored 511 points this season, an average of 42.6 points per game.
The Raiders scored at least 31 points in every game this season except Friday's.
Mogadore improves to 51-23 in 26 playoff appearances. South Range is 14-14 in 14 playoff berths.
The playoff game was a big deal in Minerva. Athletic director Don Spinell said the school receives $1,000 for use of the facility, while the band boosters benefit from concession stand sales and the athletic boosters charged $2 for parking in the school lot.
South Range sold 500 presale tickets before Friday's game. Mogadore, by comparison, sold 600.
S. RANGE: 7-7-7-7-28
SR - Joe Alessi 22 run (Tyler Rothbauer kick)
M - Anthony Ricci 1 run (Riley Jones kick)
SR - Alessi 41 pass from Ryan Miller (Rothbauer kick)
M - Dominik Pizzino 11 run (Jones kick)
M - Pizzino 9 pass from Ricci (Jones kick)
M - Jonathon Miller 17 pass from Ricci (Jones kick)
SR - Billy Goodall 36 run (Rothbauer kick)
M - Brandon Berry 3 run (Jones kick)
SR - Bryce Allen 37 pass from Miller (Rothbauer kick)
First downs 1621
Total Yards 236359
RUSHING-Mogadore, Brandon Berry 24-94, Austin Kerr 2-3, Zedekiah Pollock 1-7, Bryce Huth 3-3, Anthony Ricci 2-3, Dominik Pizzino 4-23, Nathan Alexander 2-8; South Range, Joe Alessi 28-123, Billy Goodall 5-40, David McCabe 1-1, Bryce Allen 4-37, Ryan Miller 3-18.
PASSING-Mogadore, Anthony Ricci 9-18-95-2-0 ; South Range, Ryan Miller 8-12-140-1-3.
RECEIVING-Mogadore, Nathan Alexander 2-27, Riley Jones 1-13, Josh Morgan 1-6, Dominik Pizzino 3-24, Jonathan Miller 1-17, Zedekiah Pollock 1-9 ; South Range, Zach Thorpe 2-32, Bryce Allen 2-41, Joe Alessi 1-41, Billy Goodall 2-24, David McCabe 1-2.
INTERCEPTIONS- Mogadore, Jeremy Hugg 2, Brendon Schrock.
FUMBLE RECOVERIES-Mogadore, Alec Tarter.