BY YANEEK SMITH, BEACON CONTRIBUTOR
MILLBURY — Oak Harbor quarterback Jac Alexander is one of the area’s best passers, but his throwing prowess wasn’t needed in Oak Harbor’s 34-14 victory over Eastwood in the Division V regional semifinals at Lake Community Stadium.
Alexander, along with running back Clay Schulte, ran wild over the Eagles (11-1), rushing for a combined 302 yards. Schulte was a force, running 17 times for 156 yards and four touchdowns. Alexander was just as effective, carrying the ball 22 times for 146 yards. He threw the ball just five times, completing four passes, one of which went to Schulte for a 24-yard touchdown with 7:22 remaining to put the Rockets (12-0) up 34-14.
The difference in the game was dominance Oak Harbor’s offensive line on the Eastwood defensive front. The Rockets scored on their first four possessions while running at will and picking up first down after first down. The unit that consists of Aiden Hall, who has been filling in for Ronnie Gonzalez at center, Will Dowling and Reese Laughlin (guards) and Gabe Dowling and Parker Smith (tackles), has gotten push at the line throughout the season and are the unsung heroes of the team.
“Our offensive line was getting movement, and Eastwood (came through) with their linebackers, but the line was (able to) open up holes for us,” said Schulte. “That was the key.”
Oak Harbor coach Mike May also had high praise for the offensive line.
“Our offensive line played well for the entire game,” he said. “They were consistently opening holes for Jac and Clay.
“I think the diversity of Jac and Clay makes us tough to defend. Clay is a really good running back and receiver, and Jac can run really well, too.”
Alexander appreciated the work of his blockers.
“They played extremely well. They won us the game in the trenches,” he said. “We couldn’t be more proud of them!”
The teams were somewhat familiar with one another, having played 16 consecutive times from 2001-16. At first, it appeared as though it might be a more competitive game as both teams drove the length of the field and scored touchdowns on their respective opening drives. But as the game wore on, the Rockets were able to take over.
Oak Harbor opened the game by driving 61 yards in five plays, scoring on Schulte’s 40-yard touchdown run up the middle, and Caleb Heintz’s extra point gave the Rockets a 7-0 lead. Eastwood answered with a more methodical drive, covering 59 yards in 11 plays and scoring on Mason Glaze’s 1-yard run with 4:21 to play in the first quarter, and Connor Oberhouse’s extra point tied the score at 7. But Oak Harbor would respond and take the lead for good on its ensuing drive.
The Rockets needed just six plays to score and covered 67 yards in the process, the big play coming on a 37-yard run by Alexander that gave Oak Harbor a first down at the Eagle 23-yard-line. Three plays later, Schulte took a pitch and waltzed into the end zone for a 3-yard run to make it 14-7.
Eastwood was able to move the ball, reaching the Oak Harbor 21, but the drive stalled, and on fourth-and-14 from the 25, Jared McNulty’s pass was intercepted in the end zone by Schulte.
The Rockets’ next two drives effectively put the game away as they drove 80 yards in nine plays and scored on a 22-yard run by Schulte with 6:26 to play in the first half, and the other one covered 76 yards in nine plays and culminated in Schulte scoring on a 6-yard run with 35 seconds remaining. The key play of the second drive came on second-and-7 from midfield when Alexander, following a timeout, connected with Buddy Nuhfer on a 35-yard completion before Oak Harbor scored three plays later, pushing the lead to 28-7.
“We knew we had to take care of things in the trenches,” Alexander said. “On defense, we had to try and get them in passing downs like second-and-long and third-and-long.”
The Rocket defense came up with some huge stops throughout the game, forcing a key punt in the first half and stopping another drive late in the third quarter with the Eagles trying to cut the deficit to seven points.
“We knew coming out of halftime that we were going to get Eastwood’s best shot,” said May. “Our defense came up with some key stops.”
One of the great things about the successful season the Rockets have had is that it’s brought the community together. Oak Harbor has had steadfast support throughout the season, and plenty of people showed up for this game as well. In fact, the team was given a send-off when it left the high school on Saturday.
“It’s one of the things I love about our community, (them) coming out here and supporting the team,” said May. “The support has been amazing.”
Schulte echoed those sentiments.
“(The support) has been great,” he said. “They’re super loud. When we get a big stop, we can hear them cheering.”
The victory was another sign of the Rockets’ dominance this season. In fact, Oak Harbor has yet to win a game by fewer than 19 points.
On Saturday, Oak Harbor, seeded No. 1 and ranked third in Ohio, will face the defending state champion Orrville Red Riders in Elyria, who are seeded second and ranked seventh in Div. V. Orrville, which is located 27 miles southeast of Akron, features a potent rushing attack led by Marquael Parks, one of the top running backs in the state. The Riders are coming off a 49-27 victory over Marion Pleasant.
“(Parks is) one of the top running backs in the state and overall their skill position players are very athletic. They have a great defense that is equally strong defending the run and pass. All of the athletes that they have make their special teams very explosive, too.
“Parks is fourth all-time in touchdowns in the history of Ohio high school football and he is only a junior. He is definitely the best athlete that we have faced this year and one of the best that I have ever had to prepare for as a coach. Parks is extremely quick and fast – you rarely ever see him take a big hit on film because he is so elusive. It will be a huge challenge for our defense to contain him.”