NORTH ROYALTON — With four wins in the past five weeks, the Hudson football team has reached a milestone it hasn’t seen in quite awhile.
A winning record.
The Explorers improved to 4-3 on the season after defeating host North Royalton 43-17 last Friday at Serpentini Chevrolet Stadium. Hudson outscored the Bears 36-3 in the final 25 minutes.
The win kept both the Explorers Suburban League championship and playoff aspirations alive. With a 3-1 mark in the National Conference, Hudson trails only Brecksville-Broadview Heights (5-2, 4-0).
Wadsworth (5-2, 3-1) is tied with Hudson in second place with three games remaining. North Royalton dropped to 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the conference.
The victory is the Explorers’ second straight. Hudson has a winning record for the first time since the end of the 2017 season.
"We challenged the kids to come out in the second half," Explorers head coach Jeff Gough said. "It was nice to see us come out in the second half and execute. I have to give it to Coach [Jake] Brandy, Coach [Addison] Carbone and Coach [Dave] Verhotz, for their (defensive) adjustments in the second half."
While the Explorers turned the game around after intermission, the game may have turned on North Royalton’s fourth play from scrimmage.
On that play, four-year starting quarterback and University of Akron commit Joe Marousek was injured.
The signal caller rolled right looking to throw his first pass. Instead, he ran and was injured at the end of the run. An apparent right knee injury kept Marousek out for the rest of the game.
"He’s an outstanding player," Gough said. "We have played against him for four years. I hope it’s not something too, too serious. It’s tough to watch a kid go down on something freaky like that. You hate to see that happen. I know he’s going to bounce back."
Marousek’s backup didn’t miss a beat coming off the bench.
Sophomore Michael Piazza led the Bears on two first-half touchdown drives, but his magic ran out after halftime.
Piazza was 8-of-13 passing in the first half for 73 yards and two touchdowns, but he was just 5-of-13 for 60 yards after the break. Hudson also recorded four sacks in the third and fourth quarters, respectively.
After Marousek’s injury, North Royalton continued to drive, but thanks to a James Peel strip and fumble recovery, Hudson was able to score first.
Two possessions later, the Explorers went on a 13-play, 96-yard scoring drive. The big play in the march was a 39-yard deep ball from Jacob Paltani to Luke McLaughlin.
On the play, Paltani had fantastic protection as he waited to find the open receiver. Four plays later, Paltani ran it in from six yards away. Jake Vidmar’s extra point made the score 7-0 with 8 minutes, 38 seconds left in the second quarter.
Without Marousek, the Bears scored on their next two touches. Running back Simon Antonio (24 carries for 178 yards) did the brunt of the work on the drives, while Piazza found receivers Riley Knurek and Alex Kucharski for touchdown passes of 21 and five yards, respectively, for a 14-7 North Royalton lead with 1:18 left in the half. With the lead and getting the ball to start the second half, the Bears looked to be in the driver’s seat.
As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the case.
With just 78 seconds to try to knot things up, the Explorers took just 29 seconds. The three-play 74-yard trek had a 30-yard catch by McLaughlin, a 19-yard scramble from Paltani and a 25-yard touchdown pass from Paltani to Colin Pierce with 49 ticks on the clock.
With the score tied at 14-14 Piazza almost had the answer but an Adam Oscarson pick at the goal line with six seconds left ended that threat.
Hudson was penalized seven times in the first half for 83 yards. Added to that problem was field position. On six first-half touches, the average starting point was its own 16-yard line.
After the break, a three-and-out by the Bears set up the Explorers with their best field position thus far: their own 43. Three plays later, McLaughlin took in a bubble screen pass along the left sideline, followed a Michael Roberts’ block and raced the final 43 yards for the go-ahead score. The extra-point attempt went astray on the snap, but Paltani found Chase Weber for a 2-point conversion pass and a 22-14 lead.
McLaughlin was already having a big night but was far from done as he ended with 10 catches for 182 yards. The 10 receptions tied a school record set two years ago by Colin Paltani. The 182 yards are the second most ever recorded in a game. Doug Widdoes had 191 yards in a loss at Green in 1985.
"We challenged those guys [McLaughlin and the other receivers] the rest of the night to hold up their end of the bargain and they did," Gough praised. "Credit, as well, to the other guys out there blocking. Throwing quick screens and watching the blocks happen. We have certainly grown since early on in the season."
McLaughlin was the receiver on Paltani’s last five passes on the night. Paltani completed his last eight passes, including a 6-of-6 effort in the second half. He ended the night 15-of-19 for a career high matching 246 yards.
While Paltani and McLaughlin were lighting it up through the air, Drew Lightner was giving the Explorers balance with his running game. The junior topped the 100-yard rushing milestone for the fifth time this year, ending with 144 yards on 29 carries and two scores.
"We really got to see Drew shine," Gough said. "They did a nice job of taking away our quarterback run but watching him, he had a nice night."
Down 22-14, the Bears did have one last effort making the score 22-17 on a 37-yard field goal by Zak Peterjohn.
The Explorers offense was clicking now having scored on their last touch of the first half and their first possession of the second half, it kept rolling with touchdowns on five straight possessions.
Lightner capped an 84-yard drive with six-yard touchdown run to make the score 29-17 with 1:21 left in the third. He then capped off a 31-yard march with a 4-yard touchdown.
The backups took over from there and Ryan Neher capped off the scoring by hitting Ryan Evan on a 21-yard bubble screen down the left sideline for the 43-17 final.
Totaling 455 yards in offense and averaging more than 400 yards and 36.1 points per game, the Explorers’ new hurry-up offense is snapping the ball 68 times a night. That’s more than last year’s 59.8 snap average.
"It is fun to score touchdowns for sure, but it does wear you out every now and then," starting offensive lineman Mason McLaughlin said. "It feels great. We try to take each game one at a time and go 1-0 each week.
"To be able to look back on it and see it has compiled into a winning record is great. We want to continue the momentum and the ultimate goal is the league championship."
Hudson is scheduled to host Cuyahoga Falls this Friday at 7 p.m.