They say the memories you make in high school will last you a lifetime.
No doubt the 2017 Wheelersburg Pirates football players will remember and cherish their 21-14 state championship victory over Eastwood.
In absolute classic that was capped off with an overtime finish, the Pirates accomplished their goal of “reaching higher” by winning a state title.
“We fought so hard this season, and we went 15-0,” senior Xander Carmichael said. “We had a tough loss last year in the regional finals, and we weren’t going to let that happen.”
That trophy didn’t come without a fight, however.
The Eagles scored a touchdown with 3:45 remaining in the second quarter on a six yard Ceyleon Damron touchdown run, but their extra point was missed.
Trailing 6-0, quarterback Trent Salyers wasn’t fazed. Salyers orchestrated his first two-minute drive of the game before the first half came to a close, marching down the field and concluding the drive with a two-yard quarterback sneak.
At the break, Wheelersburg was up 7-6. The score would stay that way throughout much of the second half.
But, after getting a short field late in the fourth quarter, Eastwood compiled a seven play, 51-yard drive that gave them the lead on a four yard Jaden Rayford run.
A two-point conversion on a pass put the Eagles up again 14-7 with just 1:27 to play.
Salyers wasn’t having that happen, though.
“We have a thing called the two-minute drill where we try to march down the field as fast we can,” senior Bryson Keeney said. “We just all had a sense of urgency with us and realized we had to get the ball, push it down field, and get out of bounds to conserve time as much as possible.”
The Pirates offense did just that, going 75 yards in seven plays to tie the score at 14. Makya Matthews knotted things up on a 12-yard pass from Salyers.
“Trent did a fine job of marching us down the field, and the receivers did a good job of catching the ball and making plays,” Keeney said.
Carmichael vouched for his signal caller, calling him “one hell of a quarterback.”
Jalen Miller sent home the all-important extra point, and with just 17 ticks remaining in the fourth quarter the score was notched up for the first time since the game was scoreless.
That score gave Wheelersburg the confidence it needed to keep fighting their way to a win.
“Once we knew we got that touchdown by Makya Matthews on that screen pass, we knew we were gonna win this,” Carmichael said. “We had to, for the community.”
Eastwood played for overtime, and won the toss to start the period. The Eagles opted to defer and play defense first, giving the Pirates the ball.
It looked as though Wheelersburg was going to be forced to kick a field goal and give the ball back to Eastwood, but the Pirates and head coach Rob Woodward had other ideas.
“Coach was actually still wanting to kick the field goal, and the team changed it to run that trick play right there,” Carmichael said. “We knew we were trying to get a first down to get closer, but we decided to go for a trick-a-roo.”
Wheelersburg was back on the field after the timeout in a wildcat formation, with Carmichael in the shotgun as a quarterback.
The Pirates had previously shown the same look earlier in the match, and Carmichael was stopped short after a bad snap.
This time, Wheelersburg would not be denied.
“They saw us do it one time in that formation, and they knew we were probably going to go for the first down,” Carmichael said. “I had to take over quarterback right there, and get a good pass off.”
Carmichael took a couple steps forward to fake the run, and fans gasped. It looked as though he was set to be stopped short, but then Carmichael jumped into the air on a jump pass play to find Tanner Holden wide open for an 11-yard touchdown.
The score and extra point gave the Pirates a 21-14 advantage, but Wheelersburg still needed to get a stop on defense.
Of course, the Pirates would do just that. Alex George and Avery Donini combined for a hit on Rayford to jar the ball free, and Cole Lowery flew in to recover and secure the state championship.
“It’s the best feeling of my life right now,” Carmichael said. “It’s the most amazing thing ever, I can’t explain it.”
“21-14, overtime, now that’s a state championship game right there. That’s good football.”
Now, Carmichael has some family bragging rights.
“My brother was a state champ in baseball two years in a row, I had to get something to compete with him.”
For the first time since 1989, Wheelersburg is state football champions. Their motto of “reach higher” is now a reality, as they’ve claimed a championship.
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer