Black River's Riley Gibbs (11) celebrates after scoring a rushing touchdown in the second quarter of Friday's playoff game against Wickliffe at North Ridgeville High School. Black River won 44-6. (NICK CAMMETT/GAZETTE)
NORTH RIDGEVILLE — Big plays on defense. Big plays on offense.
When Black River’s ground-and-pound attack gets big plays on top of the small ones, it’s difficult for anyone to stop the Pirates.
Black River’s defense forced a pair of fumbles in the first half and the grind-it-out rushing attack got runs of 53, 71 and 55 yards as the Pirates rolled over Wickliffe 44-6 Friday in a Division V, Region 17 semifinal at North Ridgeville High School.
It’s the fourth time that Black River has reached the regional final — the furthest the Pirates have gotten in the playoffs — and earns the team a meeting next week with South Range (12-0), which beat Manchester 34-14. It is the first time in school history the Pirates (11-1) have won 11 games in a season.
“It’s awesome. It’s a chance to make history,” said senior running back Riley Gibbs, who had 13 carries for 199 yards and two TDs.
Black River has outscored opponents 88-19 in two playoff games. The only score the Pirates defense allowed was a 67-yard scamper by Isaac Pettway in the third quarter, when Black River already led 38-0.
“It’s exhilarating,” Pirates junior quarterback Riley Bartolic said of reaching the regional final. “It’s crazy to think that people think of Black River as just these hicks from the middle of nowhere. But our community is amazing, they were cheering us when we left, they’ve been a great support for us all season.
“To think we could make it this far, these ‘hicks from Black River,’ “ Bartolic said, making the air quotes as he said it, “it just shows how crazy it can get.”
Black River’s defense made the first big play of the game, recovering a fumble at the Pirates 12 to halt Wickliffe on its first series of the game.
Two plays later, Travis Sexton carried off right tackle through a huge hole and appeared to be gone. He was chased down by DeNarre McRae 53 yards later to prevent a touchdown, and had he not been nursing a groin injury all week ...
“I’d have been gone,” Sexton said. “Our O-line did their job all game, and the big runs gave us momentum. Our crowd fed off that, and we fed off our crowd. I’d see daylight, make one cut, and then it was a 100-meter dash.”
Jacob Campbell (21 carries, 116 yards, 2 TDs) finished off the first drive with a 3-yard touchdown, and on the second drive of the game, Gibbs burst through the line on third down and sprinted untouched for a 71-yard score.
“My mindset is on one thing, getting to the end zone,” Gibbs said of breaking into open space. “That and not getting run down.”
“Riley is interesting to watch,” Bartolic said. “When he runs, he’s super fast, but you can see he’s thinking — literally on his feet. And he ends up finding the hole.”
Gibbs got one more chance to break the game open, as Black River got the opening kickoff in the second half with a 16-0 lead. On the first play from scrimmage, Gibbs found a crease and streaked 55 yards for the touchdown.
“Those are momentum-changers,” Black River coach Al Young said. “Hitting the hole like that is huge.
“We thought that would be a back-breaker, getting the opening kickoff and getting it done.”
Black River’s defense did the rest. With Spencer Constable and Alex Vormelker making play after play, and the defensive line — led by senior Joey Duche’s two sacks — pressuring the backfield constantly, Wickliffe saw little positive action.
In the third quarter the Blue Devils ran six plays for minus-8 yards. In all, they totaled just 27 yards in the second half.
“Our defense gave a lot of opportunities for our offense,” Gibbs said.
“The defense gives us something to work with every time, and they opened up great position for us,” Bartolic added.
And now it’s on to face South Range and a chance for the school’s first regional championship.
“It’s something they’ve worked for, and it’s been a big goal for them,” Young said. “We’re excited to be playing for a regional title. We know the next game is going to be very tough — they all will be at this point. But we’re playing at a pretty high level ourselves right now.”
Contact Chris Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Black River 44, Wickliffe 6
WICKLIFFE 0 0 6 0 — 6
BLACK RIVER 8 8 22 6 — 44
B – Jacob Campbell 3 run (Gibbs run), 2:20.
B – Riley Gibbs 71 run (Sexton run), 11:05.
B – Gibbs 55 run (run failed), 11:47.
B – Campbell 18 run (Gibbs run), 8:18.
B – Justin Zacharyasz 5 run (Zacharyasz run), 3:24.
W – Isaac Pettway 67 run (run failed), 2:29.
B – Zacharyasz 4 run (run failed), 4:48.
First downs 6 18
Rushing 31/97 47/483
Rushing average 3.1 10.3
Passing 4/11 0/2
Passing yards 49 0
Total offense 35/146 47/483
Punting 5/33.6 1/29.0
Penalties 0/0 0/
Fumbles 4/2 1/1
RUSHING: Wickliffe – Isaac Pettway 12-70, Nick Fenton 12-20, Nate Taylor 6-11, Brad Dieterich 1-(-4). Black River — Campbell 21-116, Gibbs 13-199, Sexton 7-136, Justin Zacharyasz 3-16, Riley Bartolic 2-11, Alex Vormelker 1-5.
PASSING: Wickliffe – Fenton 1-1-10-0, Brad Dieterich 3-10-39-0. Black River — Bartolic 0-2-0-0.
RECEIVING: Wickliffe – Michael Galioto 2-19, Fenton 1-20, Pettway 1-10.