BELOIT - It had been 11 years since the West Branch Warriors won a Northeastern Buckeye Conference title. Friday against the Salem Quakers, they ended the streak with a 21-13 win on senior night.
"I'm proud of our kids," West Branch head coach D.J. Dota said. "We stayed in there and kept battling and came away with a victory and an NBC Championship. I feel for our kids a little since we fell a bit short of our ultimate goal, but we made improvements. We're proud of the progress that we made and couldn't be happier."
West Branch running back Brenden Wells came up just shy of eclipsing the school's career rushing record, finishing the game with 209 yards on 34 carries.
"He's a great kid and he deserves everything he gets," Dota said. "He's a hard working kid, good student. He has a great offensive line up front. I wish he could have got it (the record) but we just ran out of time at the end."
The Warriors got off to a hot start, scoring on their first three possessions for a 21-0 lead, but offensively they fell silent over the final 36 minutes.
Salem got the ball to start the game and quickly set itself up in scoring position with a 56-yard run by Haedan Panezott.
"He's played really well," Salem head coach Ron Johnson said. "He's getting the feel for being a running back. We put him in there and he's learning the minor points of that. He's a strong kid, a strong runner."
The Quakers appeared to score first a few plays later, only to have six points wiped off the board due to a late holding flag in the end zone. The opportunity gave the Warrior defense a chance to bow up and force a field goal attempt, but Salem was unable to connect on the try and West Branch took over.
It didn't take long for the Warriors to score after the change in possession. Quarterback Troy James found a streaking Kip DeShields down the seam for an 18-yard score.
Later in the first quarter, Bo Utley plunged in from four-yards-out to give the Warriors a 14-0 lead.
West Branch then recovered an onside kick attempt and had the ball again. Troy James capped the drive with a quarterback sneak from the one-yard-line.
Salem raced back in the second. Marcus Crittenden took a sweep around the right side and raced 49 yards for a score to get the Quakers on the board and give a breath of life to a team that appeared on the ropes.
"I couldn't be more proud of Marcus Crittenden tonight," Johnson said. "He was playing well in the first half, but when Haedan went down, Marcus kind of went to another level." Panezott tallied 139 yards on 19 carries but left the game with an ankle injury.
Crittenden finished the game with 73 yards on 12 carries.
As the game marched on, both teams traded possessions and struggled to muster much offense.
After stopping the Warriors on their opening possession of the third quarter, Salem got the ball with a chance to chip away at the 15-point deficit. A series of personal fouls however set the Quakers back deep in their own territory and they were unable to overcome it.
Salem rose up on defense again, forcing another stop and got the ball back at their own five-yard-line. The offense churned out six first downs on a lengthy drive that spanned 12 plays and covered 95 yards. Capping those drives has been a struggle at times for the Quakers but Friday Salem cashed in when Trace Jenkins found Jake Carner for an 11-yard touchdown.
Carner made several catches on the drive and kept the chains rolling, particularly a tough grab on a jump ball on third down to keep the drive alive.
"We made some adjustments at halftime and felt the way we were gashing them in the first half that they were going to change their front," Johnson said.
The Salem defense kept the Quakers close down the stretch.
"Our defense played great," Johnson said. "There were a couple things that went against our guys early in the first half that kept drives alive for West Branch," Johnson said. "But we were able to seize the momentum defensively, and then we went right down the field and scored."
The Quakers were faced with a crucial fourth-and-six late in the fourth quarter on a drive that potentially would have tied the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion. Salem opted to take a chance, and it paid off when Brendan Webb came up with a grab beyond the chains and picked up 31 yards.
After converting the first down, Salem was again faced with another fourth down, but a Jenkins pass was batted down to end the threat.
"It's amazing what these kids can do," Johnson said. "They love Salem, and they love football. I've been fortunate enough to coach across this country, at every level. I've never been as proud of coaching any group of young men as I am tonight."
Salem ends the season 0-10. West Branch finishes 6-4.
- With the win, West Branch prevented the first ever four-game sweep in the Warriors/Quakers rivalry.
- Alliance defeated playoff-bound Marlington 34-13 giving the Warriors the league title outright.
- West Branch's Bo Utley became the Warriors career tackles leader with 200, breaking the previous record of 189 by Craig Vavrock from 1996-98.