ALBION — This year’s Medina football season has seemingly gone in waves. A three-game winning streak to start was followed by a disappointing three-game losing streak, and the body of work set the stage for one of the most meaningful Medina-Albion rivalry games in recent memory. A spot in the Class B playoffs was on the line, and coach Eric Valley’s Mustang squad had the opportunity to secure a postseason berth with a win over the Purple Eagles by five or more points (or a win by any margin, coupled with a Lew-Port loss to Amherst).
Many distractions could have been cause for concern throughout the game: the stout Ed Wolfe-led Albion rushing attack, for one, in addition to the history behind the rivalry and the necessary scoreboard-watching to see what was going on in Amherst v. Lew-Port.
But when it was all said and done, the Mustangs put together the type of offensive performance that the team has known all along it is capable of — the type that was on display in the season’s first three games. Junior quarterback Jason Hellwig directed touchdown drives on Medina’s first two possessions, while the Mustangs survived a strong Albion offensive performance and some costly mistakes. Medina won, 38-31, clinching the fourth and final sectional playoff spot out of Class B North.
“This was probably the most fired up our kids have been all year, coming into the game, and they kept the intensity up,” Valley said. “A couple of letdowns here and there, but our kids continued to drive hard. This is the hardest they’ve played all year, and I’m really proud of them.”
With the stands on both sides packed with rabid fans, the Mustangs went right to work on the game’s opening possession, as Dylan Lewis made two key receptions including a 17-yarder for a touchdown. Lewis was injured on the touchdown reception and sat out the latter part of the game, in a loss that could have been costly to Medina’s hopes.
But the next-man-up philosophy held true, and Medina continued to see key contributions across the offensive side throughout the evening. After Brett Pecoraro came up with a red-zone interception that thwarted Albion’s first offensive possession, the Mustangs struck again on a four-yard touchdown run by Kyle Barna. The successful two-point-conversion on a pass from Hellwig to Munjie Brown gave Medina a 16-0 lead, and it seemed as if the bitter memories of losses to Burgard, Lew-Port and Bennett were erased from the team’s consciousness.
“The first two drives, that set the tone,” Valley said. “We had some real big pickups in clutch situations that kind of defined us tonight. We were able to make those plays, and the last three weeks we hadn’t been able to.”
Then, a wild end to the first half set the stage for an even wilder second half. With 46 seconds remaining in the half, Albion’s Ed Wolfe scored on a two-yard touchdown run, and the ensuing two-point conversion cut the deficit to 16-8. It seemed as if Albion would be trailing by just a score at halftime, despite the half being mostly dominated by the Mustangs.
But all along this year, Medina has shown a penchant for quick-strike offense, and Hellwig directed a three-play, 53-yard drive that culminated in a 15-yard reception by Barna with just 15 seconds remaining in the half. Barna caught the ball near the three-yard line and bobbled it a bit, but managed to hang on and cross the goal line for the score. The Medina lead was 24-8 at the half, and all things were well in Mustang-land.
But explosive Albion receiver Des Blackmon was just getting started. Blackmon was a nightmare for Medina defensive backs in the second half, using blazing speed and an impressive feel for getting open to reel in three touchdown receptions after halftime, the first of which was a five-yarder from quarterback John Warne that cut the lead to 24-15 with 5:49 to play in the third quarter. The score was set up with a 21-yard run by Wolfe that brought the ball down near the Medina 20-yard line.
On the Mustangs’ next drive, Valley called a bold fake-punt run on fourth-and-eight from near midfield. With the Albion defense unsuspecting, Barna took the ball and ran up the middle for nine yards and the first down. Later in the drive, Barna hauled in a 21-yard reception on third-and-25, and then picked up the first down on a four-yard sweep around right end. Three plays later, Brown punched the ball in from the one-yard line, and Medina took a 30-15 lead with inside a minute to go in the third quarter.
After the teams traded possessions near midfield (Medina’s drive was cut short on a fumble by Brown), Albion marched downfield on the strength of Wolfe’s running, and Blackmon caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Warne with 8:30 to play. Wolfe ran for the two-point conversion, and the lead was back to one possession: Medina led, 30-23, with 8:26 to play.
Around this time, the Medina sideline began to gather word that Amherst had pulled off the shocking upset over Lew-Port, meaning that the Mustangs would no longer need to win by at least five points to qualify for the playoffs. Rather, a win by any margin would be enough, although there was still a long way to go.
On cue, the Mustangs went three-and-out on the subsequent possession, and Albion took over from their own 28 with 6:20 to play, with the chance to tie or win the game. Blackmon started the drive with a five-yard reception, Wolfe ran for eight, and just like that the Purple Eagles were in business.
But a costly false start penalty set Albion back five yards, and two incomplete passes by Warne along with a two-yard Wolfe run set up a fourth-and-14 situation. Warne’s fourth-down pass intended for Blackmon fell incomplete, and the Mustangs took over from the Albion 39 with 4:33 to play. Medina had a seven-point lead and the ball, knowing that one more touchdown could all but secure a trip to the playoffs.
A 14-yard run by Barna brought the ball down to the Albion 25. Two plays later, Hellwig called a timeout on second-and-12, forcing Valley to run onto the field in frustration over the miscommunication.
But just a few seconds later, all was fine again in the world of Mustang football. Brown took a handoff and busted through a few would-be tacklers, scampering through the red zone for a 27-yard touchdown. The PAT pass to Barna was successful, and Medina took a 38-23 lead with 2:43 remaining.
“Munjie’s fumble could have been a huge turning point; they came down and scored, but we turned around and put him right back at tailback,” Valley said. “He came right back, and he had a heck of a run. He definitely made up for it.”
Blackmon scored his final touchdown on a 12-yard reception from Warne on the subsequent drive, but it would not be enough. Medina recovered the onside kick with 30 seconds to play, and Hellwig jogged onto the field to take a knee. The Mustang celebration was on.
Medina will open the playoffs at undefeated Alden on Friday night (kickoff slated for 7 p.m.), in what is sure to be a daunting test. But no matter what happens against Alden, the Mustangs are in the playoffs, and Doc’s Rock will stay in Medina for another year.
Quite a Friday night for Valley and his team.
“As a Medina coach, this is just the second time in 18 years that I’ve won in Albion, so it’s a pretty special feeling,” Valley said. “I told the team at halftime that I remember every single kid that was on the team when we won in 1999, and I told them, ‘I want to remember you guys, too.’ At the end, I told them that I will remember them. So it’s kind of cool.”