Delaney Geiger, 17, a Highland High School Senior is crowned the 2017 Homecoming Queen by her mother Shari before Friday nights game against Aurora. (Kyle Lanzer/Special the Gazette)
KYLE LANZER Enlarge
GRANGER TWP. — A handful of bad plays and one very questionable call put an end to the Highland football team’s undefeated season Friday night at North Gateway Tire Field.
The Hornets fell 22-21 to Aurora in a Suburban League American Conference game that featured a bit of everything, including Highland missing a 31-yard field goal with 4 seconds to go following a controversial 10-yard intentional grounding penalty.
The Hornets (6-1, 2-1) faced third-and-2 from the Aurora 4-yard line and used their final timeout with 16 seconds to play, with coach Mike Gibbons electing to run one more play from scrimmage.
“We figured we’d take one more shot and on fourth down kick the field goal,” Gibbons said. “If we get it in there, we don’t have to rely on the kicking game. It didn’t faze me.”
Quarterback Matthew Earnest (11-for-19, 195 yards, 2 TDs, INT) was supposed to look for Jake Rogers in the flat or Ryan Frederick in the back of the end zone, but when no one was open the senior rolled right.
As he was approaching the Highland sideline, Earnest threw the ball out of the back of the end zone with 10 seconds left, only to be called for intentional grounding.
“I don’t 100 percent agree with the call they made, but that’s what they called,” Earnest said. “Refs aren’t perfect. No one’s perfect.”
Pushed back to the 14-yard line, Gibbons elected to use sophomore kicker Justin Tepes instead of senior Evan Shelton, who made three extra points but missed a 40-yard field goal with 6:36 left.
“They’re both good kickers,” Gibbons said. “We felt at that time, that’s the way we wanted to go.”
Tepes’ kick had plenty of distance — it would have been good from at least 45 yards — but was just wide left with 4 seconds remaining.
The Greenmen, who are much better than their 3-4, 3-1 record indicates, took a knee on the ensuing play from scrimmage and Highland’s homecoming game came to a heartbreaking end.
Adding to the pain for the Hornets, Tepes’ kick likely would have gone through the uprights had it come from 10 yards closer.
“That’s exactly what coaches would say: If it’s not there, get outside the pocket,’” Gibbons said of the grounding call on Earnest. “The official decided to take it into his own hands. But there were a lot of plays we missed on. Give Aurora credit.”
Highland led 14-10 at intermission thanks to a 69-yard pass from Earnest to Jake Sir Louis (5 catches, 121 yards) and a scintillating, school-record 77-yard punt return by Rogers (20 carries, 60 yards), but the Hornets netted just 14 first-half yards — Aurora had 162 but was hurt by four holding calls — outside of the long completion.
Highland also gave up a 27-yard fumble return for a TD by Brent Henderson when Rogers failed to handle an option pitch from Earnest and a 36-yard field goal by Robby Albrecht on the last play of the half, which was set up in part by an iffy pass interference call earlier in the drive.
Despite that, the Hornets appeared to have all the momentum when they went 75 yards in 10 plays on their first possession of the third period, with Sir Louis making an acrobatic 20-yard catch in the left corner of the end zone to put Highland up 21-10.
On the Greemen’s first play, however, quarterback Colin McNamara (18 carries, 156 yards) took a shotgun snap and bolted 71 yards around right end for a score, with Sir Louis intercepting a two-point conversion attempt to leave the score at 21-16.
That play and several other runs by McNamara negated a lot of good things done by the Highland defense, which got a fumble recovery from Connor Vomero, two tackles for loss apiece from Sir Louis and Ryan Acks and a sack and fumble recovery from Ethan Gerding.
“That hurt,” Gibbons said of McNamara’s long scoring run. “You get the momentum and they come back on one play from scrimmage. We can’t let that happen.”
After McNamara’s TD, Earnest threw into double coverage and Akron recruit Gavin Blunt came up with an interception and returned it 40 yards to the Highland 15, but a personal foul after the play pushed the Greenmen back to the 30.
Seven plays later, however, Henderson plowed in from 7 yards to put Aurora up 22-21 with 1:32 left in the third period.
The Greenmen were driving again early in the fourth when Blunt fumbled after catching a pass over the middle, with Highland’s Gerding recovering and returning the ball 20 yards to the Aurora 20.
Highland threw an incompletion on third-and-goal from the 6, but Greenmen coach Bob Mihalik elected to take a holding penalty that pushed the ball back to the 22. Following another incompletion, Shelton’s 40-yard field goal attempt was wide left.
The Hornets got the ball back at their own 31 with 4:19 left, with Earnest hitting Sir Louis for 16 yards on third-and-12, Charlie Myers for 16 yards on another third-and-12 and Frederick (3 catches, 41 yards) for 12 yards on third-and-7 prior to the grounding call and missed field goal.
“He put us in great position to win the game,” Gibbons said of Earnest. “That’s exactly what we wanted. It’s just unfortunate we came up short at the end.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @RickNoland on Twitter.
Aurora 22, Highland 21
AURORA 7 3 12 0 — 22
HIGHLAND 0 14 7 0 — 21
A — Brent Henderson 27 fumble return (Robby Albrecht kick), 0:00.
H — Jake Sir Louis 69 pass from Matthew Earnest (Evan Shelton kick), 5:27.
H — Jake Rogers 77 punt return (Shelton kick), 1:29.
A — Albrecht 36 field goal, 0:00.
H — Sir Louis 20 pass from Earnest (Shelton kick), 6:23.
A — Colin McNamara 71 run (pass failed), 6:00.
A — Henderson 7 run (run failed), 1:32.