FRANKLIN — Another slow start, another strong finish.
But not just any win — the second playoff win in school history.
The Wapakoneta Redskins scored 18 unanswered points to overcome an early deficit and pull away to a 24-13 win over the Franklin Wildcats (9-2) in a Division II regional football quarterfinal Friday night at Atrium Stadium in Franklin.
Wapak upped its record to 10-1 on the season and earned a trip to Piqua High School next Friday where the Redskins will take on the No. 1-ranked Trotwood-Madison Rams in regional semifinal action.
“It feels great,” senior cornerback Connor Metz said. “10-0 was the goal. We couldn’t get that. Ten wins was the next goal. Now we’ve got to take another step.
“We want to get 11 wins for the first time in school history. That’s a big goal.”
Trotwood-Madison shellacked Hamilton Ross 53-7 on Friday.
“We’re playing in Round 2,” Wapak varsity coach Doug Frye said. “We’ll start worrying about that tomorrow.”
After falling behind 7-0 on a Franklin opening-drive touchdown, Wapak took advantage of a pair big second-quarter runs by senior running back Connor Pickens to take a 12-7 lead into the half.
Pickens added two touchdowns in the second half, including a three-yard game clincher late in the fourth quarter.
“We just knew, coming out at halftime, that we were the better team,” Metz said. “We played down to different level in the first half. And we picked up to our pace and our game in the second half.”
Pickens carried the ball 26 times for 193 yards (7.4 per carry) and three touchdowns.
Wapak touched the ball just twice in the first quarter, going three-and-out on both possessions. First-down penalties created long-yardage situations each time.
Franklin, meanwhile, marched 68 yards in 12 plays — a drive aided by a Redskins’ penalty — on its opening series.
“We had to fly to the ball better,” junior safety Alex Greve said. “We made some adjustments on coverages. Basically we just had to get to the ball faster and make some plays. And we did that in the second half.”
Senior quarterback Kevin Stewart hooked up with senior wide receiver Everett Williams, who broke the Wildcats’ single-season reception record with 56 catches this year, three times on the drive. All three catches were on third down, including an 11-yarder to put Franklin on top 6-0.
“They’re very quick,” Frye said. “As the game wore on, I thought we started to neutralize that speed. But early on it was a factor for them.”
Kicker Eric Vanlandingham added the extra point to make it 7-0 at the 5:18 mark of the first quarter.
Wapak senior Kevin Kraft was given the unenviable task of trying to rein in the 6-foot-2, 160-pound receiver. But after the opening drive, Kraft settled into a groove and relegated Williams to non-factor status.
“I thought Kevin Kraft did a great job tonight in coverage,” Frye said. “We challenged Kevin to do that and I thought he did a really good job.”
The Redskins offense finally came alive on the opening drive of the second quarter.
On a third-and-three from the Wapak 42, Pickens broke free for a 58-yard touchdown run to draw the Redskins within one, 7-6.
Sophomore kicker Bailey Hinegardner made the extra point, but was forced to kick it again, this time five yards deeper after yet another Wapak penalty. This time his kick clanged off the right upright.
After forcing Franklin to turn it over on downs on the ensuing possession, the Redskins drove 70 yards in seven plays to take a 12-7 lead on junior running back Jensen Merricle’s four-yard touchdown run. The two-point conversion failed.
Pickens gave Wapak its first first down of the game with a 35-yard run to set up the score. At the half, Pickens had 118 rushing yards and the Redskins had 148 total yards of offense — but just two first downs.
Turnovers sank Franklin in the second half. The Wildcats fumbled the ball away deep in Wapak territory on the opening drive of the third quarter. Senior Jim Knippen recovered at the Wapak 23 yard line.
Following a Redskins punt, Greve picked off Stewart’s second-down pass attempt and returned it to the Franklin 45.
“That’s what you have to do anytime, especially at this level in the playoffs,” Frye said. “We have to control clock and we have to win the turnover battle.”
Said Franklin coach Rodney Roberts, “We’ve been fortunate all year long to be on the plus side on turnovers and were able to win nine football games.”
Nine plays later, Pickens barrelled in from two yards out to make it an 18-7 lead. The Wildcats blocked Hinegardner’s PAT attempt.
“We’re struggling right there,” Frye said.
Kraft provided a highlight-reel catch on a third down to keep the drive alive. Facing third-and-eight from the Franklin 41, junior quarterback put a pass on Kraft’s back shoulder down the right sideline. Kraft made a leaping catch on a ball that appeared to be out of reach and came down with both feet inbounds at the 15 yard line.
The Wildcats weren’t done though.
Two possessions later, Stewart found a wide-open Scott Dwyer on a quick pass and Dwyer raced 60 yards untouched for the touchdown to close the gap to 18-13 with 6:29 left in the contest.
“Senior Scott Dwyer recognized the coverage and took off down the field,” Roberts said. “And our senior quarterback read it and, bam! That’s just two seniors doing their job.”
Franklin went for two, hoping to cut the lead to a field goal. But junior linebacker Brandon Miller and senior linebacker Brendan Wilson teamed up to sack Stewart and preserve the five-point lead.
Wapak responded in a big way. A long kickoff return by Greve gave the Redskins the ball at their own 46.
From there, Pickens and the Wapak offensive line took over. Pickens carried the ball eight times on the nine-play drive, often dragging two, three or four defenders along with him. He drove in from three yards out to make a 24-13 game with 2:55 to play.
“That was extremely important,” Frye said. “Our kids came back and showed a lot of character with that drive.”
Franklin tried to respond. But Metz produced the third turnover of the night, picking off Stewart at the Redskins’ 4 yard line with 1:44 to play to seal the win.
“This wasn’t easy,” Frye said. “We’re not a playoff experienced team. We’ve not been through this before. We’re on the road. We’re in a tough environment. It was an adjustment for our kids and I thought they stepped it up.”