Sean Hoxworth photos
When a young team is hungry for its first win, all it takes is a bit of high-energy action that goes in its favor to provide exactly what is needed to go grab that win.
For the West Holmes Knights, a week-five road win over Mansfield Madison came in the rush of a six-minute spurt to start the game that saw the Knights scream to a 21-0 lead that eventually paved the way for a convincing 56-20 victory. That win gave new head coach Zac Gardner his first win as a Knight in addition to his young team’s first win of the year.
“You could definitely feel it was a big relief for our kids to get that first one out of the way,” Gardner said. “They have been working so hard, and we have gotten better every week, and they have bought into the program. To go out and execute our game plan like we did was a big step for us.”
West Holmes simply willed its way to win by dominating this game from the opening kick-off.
West Holmes raced downfield and scored on the game’s opening drive, which culminated in Gavin Sheldon’s 1-yard TD plunge off a direct snap.
West Holmes then forced a fumble on the ensuing kick-off and quickly capitalized on the short field when Bridger Cline connected with touchdown machine Shane Jones on a 7-yard scoring strike and a 14-0 lead, and the game was barely three minutes old.
After getting a key stop on defense, the Knights took over on offense and whipped down the field to score its third touchdown in less than six minutes when Cael Ogi raced to pay dirt from 18-yards out.
The blitzkrieg start to the game was key to the Knights being able to play in front for a change.
“In the past couple of weeks, we’ve dug ourselves into a hole we couldn’t climb out of,” Gardner said. “We talked about this, and it was important for us to get out to a fast start. We came out and executed and played well from there.”
Madison finally got its footing late in the first quarter and produced a touchdown to trim the deficit to 21-7 when Kyle Jackson took a direct snap and crushed in from the one.
However, West Holmes had built plenty of confidence, and Madison was struggling to stop the Knights’ offense, so the Rams tried a bit of trickery on the ensuing kick. Hoping to catch the Knights off guard, the Rams tried an onside kick, but Hayden Baker played it perfectly, staying home, reading the kick and falling on the ball to give the Knights great field position.
West Holmes moved the ball deep into Madison territory on a bubble screen to Brayden Chaney for 23 yards and a 24-yard trick play that saw Sheldon take a pitch from quarterback Bridger Cline, only to stop and throw back across to Cline, who caught the pass and rolled downfield.
However, a holding penalty thwarted the drive, and a Cline pooch punt stopped on the Rams’ 14-yard line. After a quick three and out, Jones got a 33-yard punt return, which gave the Knights terrific field position. It didn’t take long to score as Ogi burst through the line around end and rambled 33 yards for a touchdown and a 28-7 lead.
Another quick three and out for West Holmes’ defense and the Knights were off again, but the drive was thwarted when Madison’s Tyler Baldinger picked off a Cline offering.
The Rams took over in great field position near midfield, but a personal foul moved them back and forced another quick punt. It didn’t take long for West Holmes to forge a 35-7 lead when Sheldon hammered through the right side of the Rams’ defense and ripped off a 47-yard touchdown run.
Madison got some momentum on a 27-yard pass play to Sean Rooker, but on fourth down West Holmes defensive back Michael Taylor got West Holmes’ first interception of the year to thwart the drive with just 87 seconds to play in the half.
That was when Gardner went for the throat. Rather than sit on the 35-7 lead, the Knights took the ball on their own 35 and roared down field. Cline had a nice keeper gain, and Ogi busted off a huge run to Madison’s 33. After Madison nearly got an interception, Cline found Chaney for a 30-yard catch-and-run, and Chaney darted in for a score with just 13 seconds remaining before the half to make it 42-7.
“We are at the stage where we are learning how to win, and as long as we take the mentality to keep getting better and to focus on the process of practice, preparation and execution, we will take whatever the results are,” Gardner said.
Perhaps, but it was nice for the Knights to experience the success that comes with all of those work ethics, and they were enjoying an opportunity to put a team away. The Knights made good and sure that Madison didn’t come out with any momentum.
Chaney opened up the second half with a monster kick return to Madison’s 33, and a couple of plays later Cline and Jones hooked up again, this time on a 23-yard scoring strike, giving the Knights a commanding 49-7 edge. Madison answered with a score, but the Knights came right back as Chaney added another electrifying return to his night’s stats.
On fourth and two Sheldon took a direct snap and rambled 14 yards to the Rams’ 14, and eventually Bryce Meyers hammered into the end zone from 1-yard out to move the lead back to 42 points at 56-14.
The running back duo of Sheldon and Ogi proved to be nearly unstoppable all night for the Knights, and Gardner said that despite running a five-wide set, there is plenty of room for the running game.
“We like what we have in Sheldon and Ogi,” Gardner said. “Our philosophy is to always take what the defense gives us, and we know we have two very capable running backs who can carry the load.”
Gardner also said much of that success was due to a tremendous effort by the offensive line, which opened up some gaping holes for the running backs to exploit.
With the clock now on fast time as West Holmes had built a 30-plus point advantage, leading to the running clock, Madison would score a late touchdown, but a solid defensive effort the rest of the way and some quality ball control helped the Knights run the clock out to earn their first win of the year.
The biggest reason the Knights were able to pull away was through its ground attack, where West Holmes accumulated 250 rushing yards compared to just 31 for the Rams.
Ogi racked up 91 yards on just six carries while Sheldon totaled 81 yards on six totes. Meyers ended the night with 48 yards on seven carries while Chaney added to the total with one 37-yard run.
Cline went 11-of-19 passing for 137 yards and three touchdowns, finding Chaney on six of those completions for 87 yards and a score. Jones pulled down three passes for 45 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“We’re starting to see the potential come out of this team, and we continue to get better and better,” Gardner said of his Knights. “Defensively we are all about everyone doing their jobs. We really tried to focus on creating three and outs on defense and getting our offense back on the field quickly. We had several of those in this one, and we did a nice job of not allowing them to convert big first downs that sustain drives.”
For a young team hungry for a win that had shown some real glimpses of excitement over the first four weeks, the game was a culmination of determination and hard work, and Gardner said his team deserved to finally experience the joy of victory after playing hard and coming close against some good competition earlier in the year.