Stow football pounds Cleveland Heights in playoff opener

Rob Barrone
Stow-Munroe Falls quarterback Owen Bainbridge looks to pass during the Bulldogs' 45-15 Division I playoff win over Cleveland Heights Oct. 9 at home.

Week seven of Ohio high school football 2020 season is in the books with the start of the playoffs.

Four weeks ahead of the schedule and with every team in the playoffs this year, Stow-Monroe Falls (now 5-1) is already meeting up with the “big boys” of Division I, Region 1.

After dispatching Cleveland Heights by a 45-14 count at Bulldog Stadium Oct. 9 in the first round of the postseason, Stow is off to perennial power Mentor for a round two contest.

The Cardinals (6-1) warmed up for the affair crushing Shaker Heights 69-13.

“It’s different, no doubt,” third-year Stow head coach Tom Phillips agreed after his first playoff appearance and win as the Bulldogs’ coach. “But it is what it is, and this format might be here for a while. Who knows? I haven’t personally seen them (Mentor). I know they have some athletes; they have a great program and tradition. We have to be at our best. In 12 hours, we’ll have to turn that page.”

For Bulldog two-way performer Jack Bryden, the season is flying by.

“It’s crazy. It felt like the season just started and we're already here with the first playoff game and now we’re playing Mentor. It’s crazy to think about,” the senior explained after his breakout performance against Cleveland Heights.

Stow-Munroe Falls receiver Vance Sheppert leaps through the Cleveland Heights' defense during the Bulldogs' 45-14 Division I playoff win over the Tigers Oct. 9 at home.

Penciled in as the fourth-team running back at the beginning of the season, Bryden has been pressed into starting duties in the offensive backfield due to injuries. With 23 carries for 117 yards through the Bulldogs' first five games, Bryden exploded on the scene against the Tigers.

Bryden matched his season total coming in with 23 rushes but for a game-high 169 yards and two touchdowns. He still starts as a cornerback on defense. There he started off the game with a tackle for a loss of 6 yards on Heights' first snap and then added an interception on the visitors' first pass attempt later in the first half.

“Our one, two and three (running backs) are out, so we have been shuffling with our running backs for the last three weeks after we lost Mykal Azar, Xavier Preston and D’Anthony Becton,” Phillips noted. “Jack gets down hill, he’s an excellent runner. We try to do the two-platoon. When you're out the top three … Jack got the call.”

The Bulldogs mixed in the running of Bryden with the passing of junior quarterback Owen Bainbridge to drive 71 yards to pay dirt in the game’s opening possession.

The 6-foot-5 Bainbridge connected on 3 of 4 passes in the march for 35 yards. Bryden got off to a fast start, running for gains of; 5, 21 and 10 yards to start his night. The drive sputtered at the Tigers' 3-yard line, but on a fourth-and-2 play, Bainbridge rifled a pass to Justin Weightman on the right side for the touchdown. The duo hooked up again, running the same play for the 2-point conversion and a quick 8-0 lead.

From his cornerback spot, Bryden then blew up a pitch-out run on Heights' first play from scrimmage for a 6-yard loss. After a fourth-and-19 punt into the wind, the hosts were in business again just 35 yards from a second score.

Bryden carried twice for 17 yards, and then on the third play, Bainbridge slung a side-arm shot up the middle to Jack Costa for an 18-yard touchdown. The 2-point conversion failed and Stow led 14-0 with just 5:47 off the first period clock.

The Tigers' offensive woes continued on their second possession with another three and out. Having backed up Heights 12 yards total in the first two touches, it looked like the Bulldogs had figured out their “wing-T” running attack and a rout was on … or so it appeared.

On Stow’s next two possession,  the wheels fell off. On the first, a low snap on a punt attempt gave the visitors great field position and on the second, a fourth-down pass was picked off. The Tigers took advantage of the short field both times.

Scoring drives of 40 and 44 yards followed the two miscues. Sophomore quarterback Derreon Fair scored on 1-yard sneaks to cap off both drives that featured all running plays. Suddenly, it was 14-14 midway through the second quarter.

Stow’s defense responded from there, allowing just three first downs the rest of the night.

“This is a predominate-run offense and we haven’t faced that in the three years that I’ve been here. This is a team that is 90% run,” Phillips explained. ”Our kids started playing a little more disciplined (after the two scores). Credit to the defensive staff for a lot of OTA’s.”

The Bulldogs answered the tying score by marching 79 yards for the go-ahead score. Bryden finished off the possession, weaving through traffic up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown and a 20-14 advantage with 1:54 left in the first half.

When Fair threw his first pass of the night — a bomb to DaeSean Evans — Bryden was behind the intended receiver on the jump ball. Bryden out-muscled Evans for the interception.

After a quick exchange of punts, Stow got the ball back with 36 ticks on the clock and 33 yards from the end zone with no timeouts.

On the first play, Dalen Stoval had to play defensive back, breaking up a sure interception at the goal line. On the next play ,Heights went for the pick again but missed and the Bainbridge bullet was caught by William Luketich in traffic. The senior then followed a block from Costa down the right sideline for the 33-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left in the half. Luketich caught the 2-point conversion as well for a 28-14 lead at intermission.

Bainbridge had three touchdown passes to three different receivers in the first half and ended the night 13 of 24 for 160 yards.

The 14-point Cleveland Heights spurt proved to be just a hiccup for the Dogs as they controlled the action in the second half.

The lead improved to 31-14 when Brenden Horrocks’ line drive 29-yard field goal was good early in the third quarter.

The Tigers picked up their final three first downs on the next touch, including a 42-yard pass to the wide-open Jerimiah Dillard. Costa made a touchdown-saving tackle at the 5-yard line. Four plays later, Costa knocked away a fourth-down pass into the end zone and Stow took over on downs.

A Heights fumble on the first play of their next possession was recovered by Luketich at the visitors' 17. Stow took advantage of the great field position, scoring on an 8-yard keeper by Bainbridge on a forth-down play. Alex Barry kicked the extra point for a 38-14 lead.

The running clock started with 5:23 left in the game when Bryden capped off his evening with a 14-yard burst up the middle and the 45-14 final margin.

“Our top two running backs, Azar and Xavier, got hurt and I had to step up and keep conditioning all week so I’m ready to play both ways, corner and running back,” Bryden said. “I’m glad I followed my linemen, made the right cuts and we came out with a W. Our line did a great job”

Stow’s last appearance in the playoffs was in 2017 when they fell in the first round by a 49-17 final to Mentor.