LANARK – The Eastland-Pearl City Wildcatz kept knocking on the door. Trouble was, the Orion Chargers refused to answer.
The Wildcatz staked the Chargers to an 18-point halftime lead, then came roaring back in the third quarter. But four points was as close as they got, and Orion held on for a 31-24 victory Saturday in a first-round game in the Class 2A playoffs at Eastland High School.
“We had some opportunities, had some big plays to put us into position,” EPC coach Randy Asche said, “but we had some little things – dropped passes, overthrows, missed execution – and we just couldn’t finish things off.”
Running back Dylan Schultz was the X-factor for the Chargers. The senior scored all four Orion touchdowns, two on big plays (a 56-yard catch and a 60-yard scamper) and two more on the ground in goal-to-go situations. He had 141 yards rushing and 96 yards receiving – but that was almost all in the first half.
Trailing 21-3 late in the second quarter, the Wildcatz found a spark when quarterback Tim Vandenburgh threw a jump-ball TD pass to 6-foot-3 wideout Skylar Paulson with 54 seconds left before halftime. And even though Orion (6-4) answered with Schultz’s final TD run with 9.3 seconds before the break, EPC (9-1) used their scoring pass as a jumping-off point for the second half.
“We kind of woke up finally, and the coaches gave us a good halftime speech,” sophomore wideout/returner Cody Kluck said. “We knew we could beat them up front, we knew we could come back – we did it last week against Forreston – and we came out fired up after the first-half wake-up call.”
EPC overcame a fumble on its opening possession of the third quarter when the defense sniffed out an Orion screen pass on fourth down. Kluck then turned a short sideline pass into an 80-yard touchdown, when he split a pair of Charger defenders and tipped Vandenburgh’s pass to himself before outrunning everyone to the end zone.
A three-and-out by the ‘Catz defense and a bad punt by Orion set up EPC in Charger territory on the next drive, and Ben Thomas broke off a 34-yard run on the first play before stepping out of bounds. Three plays later – all between-the-tackle carries by Eric Schaney – and the Wildcatz were within four at 28-24 with 4:29 left in the third quarter.
“The coaches made some great calls, and we knew what we were playing for,” Kluck said. “Our senior leaders stepped up and got us going, we started breaking some big plays, and it was kind of like a snowball going downhill.”
But the momentum was lost when Orion drove 69 yards in 11 plays to the EPC 3-yard line, and even though they settled for a 20-yard field goal, the Chargers had stopped the Wildcatz’s roll and stretched the lead back to 7 points.
EPC had plenty of chances in the fourth quarter. But after Austin Fischer recovered a fumble forced by Mike Fahey’s sack on the Orion 14, a fourth-down touchdown pass was caught out of bounds in the end zone.
The Wildcatz took over in Orion territory again after forcing a three-and-out, but turned the ball over on downs at the Orion 29. Another Charger three-and-out, and Kluck raced out to his second 30-plus-yard punt return of the game, setting EPC up at midfield.
But Vandenburgh’s second-down pass was tipped and intercepted by Joe DeVolder, then a long pass to Kluck on EPC’s final possession went for naught when Jacob DeVolder picked off another second-down pass at the Orion 7 with 12.9 seconds to go to seal the win.
“We ran the ball hard and made some big plays in the first half, but EPC made some good adjustments and took things away in the second half,” said Schultz, who had 191 of his 237 total yards and all four TDs before halftime. “We were a little nervous when they got close, but every single one of us believes in each other, and we pulled together and pulled it out.”
Class 2A playoffs, first round
Orion 31, Eastland-Pearl City 24
Star of the game: Dylan Schultz, Orion, 141 rushing yards, 3 TDs; 96 receiving yards TD
Key performers: Blake Matson, Orion, 10-for-20 passing, 216 yards, TD; Ramsay Truckenmiller, EPC, 71 yards rushing, 13 yards receiving; Cody Kluck, EPC, 2 catches, 114 yards, TD, 2 punt returns, 68 yards
Up next: Class 2A second round, Orion vs. Amboy/North Shore Country Day, time & site TBA