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Quakers ride into the playoffs in style

Salem’s Niko Walter shoves aside West Branch’s Steven Marra during Saturday’s game at Sebo Stadium. (Salem News/Gary Leininger)

SALEM — Next stop: Playoffs.

The Salem High School football team warmed up for its second playoff qualification in the past three years and third in the Ron Johnson coaching era by defeating arch-rival West Branch 46-27 in an offensive shootout Saturday night at Sebo Stadium.

“The whole team is playing well,” said Salem coach Ron Johnson. “We just took what they gave us and I thought the whole team played very well. This is everything these kids deserve and this town deserves.”

The win secured an 8-2 overall finish for the Quakers to go along with an Eastern Buckeye Conference mark of 4-2, good for third place in the league.

The Quakers also finished fifth in the final Division IV Region 13 computer ratings and will open postseason play at 7 p.m. Saturday at 14th-ranked Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy (7-3).

“Our kids kept their heads up and played the next play and it was encouraging to see,” said Johnson. “This was a must game, a huge game. We didn’t even talk about the playoffs, this is West Branch week and we wanted to be undefeated in this (one-game West Branch) season. Now we’re on to the postseason and let’s play real well in that season too.”

West Branch finished 2-8 overall and 2-4 in the EBC, good for a fourth-place tie with Carrollton in the final league standings.

“That (losing an offensive shootout) is the way it’s been the last three weeks,” said West Branch coach Ken Harris. “We just find a way to claw our way out (from early deficits).”

The Quakers scored early and never trailed in the game, led by an outstanding passing performance by freshman quarterback Jackson Johnson who completed 27-of-36 passes for 381 yards and five touchdowns. His leading receivers were Niko Walter with 12 catches for 205 yards and two touchdowns and Blaize Exline with nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.

“Blaize Exline stepped up and had a huge night,” said Johnson.

When told of his staggering passing numbers, Jackson Johnson, who has thrown 13 touchdown passes in three games as the Quakers’ starting signal-caller, gave all the credit to his teammates in winning the big rivalry game.

“We scored a lot of points and that’s all that matters,” he said. “Now we have to lock in and play well (in the playoffs).”

Salem piled up 513 yards total offense to 243 for the Warriors. Cade Campolito led all Quaker rushers with 95 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown.

Ron Johnson said he loves to see the Quakers building a strong tradition in football.

“Salem is football town now, Sebo Stadium, and the commitment he (Bob Sebo) had made, and the fans — and we have tough kids and everybody is in to it,” said Johnson.

Running back Blayne Flickinger and quarterback Brock Hillyer led West Branch with 65 yards each on the ground.

Leading 24-14 at halftime, Salem scored second-half touchdowns on a 62-yard third-quarter pass from Jackson Johnson to Niko Walter and on a 27-yard fourth-quarter run by Cade Campolito. Johnson also added a two-point conversion run and Blaize Exline scored on a two-point conversion pass from Johnson.

Bradlee Kitts closed the scoring with 3:39 left on a one-yard shovel pass from Jackson Johnson, making it 46-27 after a failed conversion pass.

West Branch, which trailed 40-20 after three, countered with a 27-yard scoring run by Blayne Flickinger and on a 34-yard pass from Brock Hillyer to receiver David McKeiver. Kicker Jared Butler added both PAT kicks.

“The kids played hard like they did every week, this game means a lot to both teams,” said Harris. “We’ve got to get better, we have a good senior class and love those kids to death but we just can’t keep falling behind in games like that.”

Salem scored on four of its five first-half possessions, including its first of the game when the Quakers marched 45 yards to find the end zone on a 10-yard quarterback keeper by Jackson Johnson. The PAT boot failed and the Quakers took a 6-0 lead at the 9:25 mark of the first half.

Jackson, who completed 19 of 28 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone, scrambled around and connected on a 35-yard scoring aerial to Exline as the Quakers went up 12-0 at the 3:00 mark of the first quarter.

West Branch cut the lead to 12-7, marching 53 yards to score when Hillyer raced up the middle eight yards on a keeper. Kicker Jared Butler added the PAT kick and the Warriors trailed 13-7 at the 1:30 mark of the opening quarter.

But Salem answered right back when Jackson fired a pass to Niko Walter along the left sideline and Walter outraced the West Branch secondary 70 yards to score. The PAT passed failed but the Quakers increased their lead to 18-7 at the 1:12 mark of the first quarter.

Jackson went to the air again, this time finding receiver Anthony DiMuzio with a seven-yard scoring toss. The PAT run failed but the Quakers led 24-7 at the 7:44 juncture of the second quarter.

West Branch cut the deficit to 10 at 24-14 just before halftime when Hillyer scored on a two-yard quarterback sneak over left guard. Butler added the PAT kick with 2:34 showing before the break.

Game notes

¯ This is Ron Johnson’s third playoff team in eight seasons as Salem head coach. The Quakers join the 2015 and 2017 squads which also advanced to postseason play.

With Saturday’s win, Ron Johnson is now 5-3 in games vs. West Branch and the Quakers have now won three straight games against the Warriors.

“I could not be more excited for our kids, our fans and our administration,” said Johnson.

¯ Four of West Branch’s eight losses this season were to playoff teams in Girard, Struthers, Alliance and Salem. Of the EBC members, the Warriors were tied with Marlington for the most playoff teams on their tough schedule.

WEST BRANCH 7- 7-13-0–27

SALEM 18- 6-16- 6– 46

SCORING

S–Jackson Johnson, 10 run, 9:25 1st (run failed)

S–Blaize Exline, 35 pass from Jackson Johnson, 3:00 1st (pass failed)

WB–Brock Hillyer, 8 run, 1:30 1st (Jared Butler kick)

S–Niko Walter, 70 pass from Jackson Johnson, 1:12 1st (pass failed)

S Anthony DiMuzio, 7 pass from Jackson Johnson, 7:44 2nd (run failed)

WB –Brock Hillyer, 2 run, 2:34 2nd (Jared Butler kick)

S–Niko Walter, 62 pass from Jackson Johnson, 10:24 3rd (Jackson Johnson run)

WB–Blayne Flickinger, 27 run, 8:32 3rd (run failed)

S–Cade Campolito, 28 run, 8:07 3rd (Blaize Exline pass from Jackson Johnson)

S–David McKeiver, 34 pass from Brock Hillyer, 0:00 3rd (Jared Butler kick)

S–Bradlee Kitts, 1 pass from Jackson Johnson, 3:39 4th (pass failed)

——

WB S

First downs 14 26

Total Yards 243 513

Rushes-yards 30-161 27-132

Passing 82 381

Comp-Att-Int 11-15-0 27-36-0

Punts 3-33 3-35

Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-0

Penalties-Yards 4-32 7-74

——

INDIVIDUAL LEADERS

RUSHING–Salem, Cade Campolito 14-95, Jackson Johnson, 9-25; West Branch, Blayne Flickinger 11-65, Josh Rinehart 4-21, Brock Hillyer 9-65.

PASSING–Salem, Jackson Johnson, 27-36-381-5-0; West Branch, Brock Hillyer, 11-15-82-1-0.

RECEIVING–Salem, Niko Walter, 12-205, Anthony DiMuzio, 4-43, Blaize Exline, 9-129, Bradlee Kitts, 2-4; West Branch, David McKeiver, 9-63, Josh Gregory, 1-14, Nick Wilson, 1-5.

FUMBLE RECOVERIES–Salem, Jax Booth, Joey Watson.

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