WEST CHESTER TWP. — The No. 3 seed Lakota West Firebirds hosted the No. 6 seed Elder Panthers in the second round of the OHSAA State Playoffs on Friday.
The cotton candy sky predicated what was a thrilling and competitive football game between two successful, well-coached teams.
“Those are the ones — they’re instant classics,” Lakota West coach Tom Bolden said. “When you play a team that well coached, that disciplined, that good, that hard-nosed, it makes for great memories.”
The Firebirds came out on top 24-14, led by quarterback Sam Wiles and running back Braydon Johnson.
The duo’s impact on the game was felt on the first offensive drive for the Firebirds. Wiles broke loose on the first play from scrimmage, charging for a chunk gain of 20-plus yards.
The two traded touches until they got down to the red zone. Elder’s defense stepped up, holding Lakota West to just a field goal.
The Panthers’ offense wasn’t as explosive on their first drive with the ball, but they were just as efficient. Quarterback Ryan Brass led a long, meticulous drive through the air and on the ground — which led to an Elder touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
Bolden’s offense took the field looking to respond, but it was unable to. Near midfield, the Firebirds made a gutsy call to go for it on fourth down for the second time on the drive. Braydon Johnson was stopped just short, handing the ball back to the Panthers with good field position.
Bolden showed great frustration with his sophomore running back following the play.
“He banged it when he should have bounced it, but that’s OK,” Bolden said. “That’s what a young running back does. We just have to get him healthy, he rolled his ankle a little bit, we’ll get him back and get him rolling.”
Elder added on, scoring shortly after a third and 16 conversion just outside the red zone. The Panthers led 14-3 as halftime neared.
Johnson took Bolden’s passionate constructive criticism and turned it into motivation. He’d lead a long drive just before the half that ended in a score. With 12 seconds left and no timeouts, Bolden trusted his sophomore running back, giving it to him on the 1-yard line. Johnson bounced off a tackler into the end zone, bringing the score to 14-10 at the end of the half.
It was apparent Bolden’s halftime speech hit home with his players. The high-flying Lakota West defense forced a three-and-out right out of the break.
“I told the kids before we took the field, ‘I want you to concentrate on the first half — 24 minutes for the rest of your life.’ I told them at halftime after we made some adjustments, ‘The next 24 minutes, for the rest of your life.’”
The next drive for Lakota West was when the momentum swung in the Firebirds’ favor. Johnson left the game with a lower-body injury on the drive, but Wiles eventually charged into the end zone to give West a 17-14 lead.
The next defensive possession was basically a carbon copy of the Firebirds’ last. Linebacker Eli Davis recorded a tackle for loss and sack on the drive, forcing an Elder punt. Lakota West had all the momentum when they got the ball back, and they’d take advantage.
Backup running back Carwin Atkins took advantage of Johnson’s absence, complimenting quarterback Sam Wiles well. It was another long drive featuring the running game, however, Wiles connected with highly touted tight end Luka Gilbert, who made a shoestring catch for about 30 yards on the drive. Atkins took a handoff from Wiles and scored from the 1-yard line, giving the Firebirds a 24-14 lead.
Elder’s next offensive drive was crucial. With the momentum and score on Lakota West’s side, getting into the end zone was of greatest importance. Brass went to the air multiple times, marching down the field within the Lakota West 10-yard line.
Firebirds linebacker Grant Beerman made a stellar play rushing the passer and forcing an incompletion. Brass took off on a quarterback rush a couple of plays later and dove for the end zone. He lost control of the ball when he was tackled.
The Firebirds recovered the fumble with just over nine minutes left in the game, looking to salt it away. It came down to a third and 4 deep in their own territory. Wiles hit wide receiver Brennan Remy on a swing pass to the right. Remy broke two tackles and stretched for the first down, a dagger for Elder.
“He just makes plays, he’s one of hell of a receiver,” Bolden said. “He’s been that guy. Last year, this year — he just makes plays.”
The Firebirds milked nearly six minutes off the clock before punting it back to the Panthers. Elder made another push at the end zone, but Brass threw an interception to Lakota West defensive back Finn Mason, effectively ending the game.
“Five, 10, 15 years down the road you remember games like this,” Bolden said.
Lakota West moves on to face No. 2 seed Princeton next week with a trip to the regional final on the line.