By: Timothy Kays
THE VILLAGE REPORTER
“Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.” ~ Quintus Horatius Flaccus
The Swanton Bulldogs entered their November 6 Division 5 Regional contest against Apple Creek Waynedale riding high with a 9-1 record, a share of the league title in a very tough NWOAL, and the #4 ranking in Division 5 Region 16. They averaged 41.3 points of offense per game during the regular season, with a defense that averaged 16.2 points allowed. The only blemish on their record came at the hands of Wauseon, who finished the 2015 campaign ranked #2 in Division IV Region 12, with the other share of the NWOAL crown.
Waynedale came into the game ranked #5 in Division 5 Region 16 with a 7-3 record. Two of those losses came against teams currently in the playoffs, while the third was a 28-7 loss to 5-5 Northwestern. The Golden Bears would need to take advantage of every opportunity to hang with the Bulldogs. Several opportunities came their way in the third period to put them in the catbird seat, but the sudden adversity faced by Swanton turned them from a proven powerhouse into a relentless, hammering machine that lost a huge 24-7 lead, then regrouped and battered the Bears in a 38-28 win.
Waynedale took the opening kick out to their 31 to open play. A run and a pass set up a third and one, which became a first down following a sweep for three. The Bulldog defense then bared their teeth and bit. A pass attempt on first down was made under the duress of a Tim Rankin blitz, with Robbie Gilsdorf swatting the ball away. A second down pass attempt fared even worse for the Bears as Bryce McComb picked off the ball. The Swanton offense went to work from the Waynedale 43.
The Bulldogs have a ‘Thunder and Lightning’ backfield, with Rankin supplying the lightning, and freshman Michael Lawniczak the thunder. Behind the ground pounders, the Bulldog line moved steadily downfield until, with a fourth and six, McComb found Gilsdorf for the first score of the game. The sure foot of Nick Kobak drove home the PAT kick, and with 5:25 left in the first period, the hometown boys were up, 7-0.
Waynedale received the kick, and started at their 23. The Bulldog defense again clamped down on the Bears, forcing a three-and-out, and a punt which bounced out of bounds at the Swanton 45. Once again the ground game came to the fore, with McComb moving the sticks after converting on a third and five run. Waynedale managed to hold the Dogs for a while, but on a third and ten, McComb found Nick Sienkiewicz for a first down inside the 30. Again the ground game resumed, and with time winding down in the first period, Lawniczak converted a third and two from the 21, into a first and ten from the 14. The quarter came to a close with the Bulldogs up 7-0, and in the meat market for more.
Resuming play, Lawniczak carried the ball twice, moving it down to the Waynedale nine. A pass attempt to Gilsdorf fell incomplete, and on fourth down Kobak punched through a field goal to make it a 10-0 game with 10:31 remaining in the half.
Waynedale set up shop on their 29 and tried to find a way through the Swanton defense. Their start was promising with a five-yard pass play on first down, but another attempt through the air fell incomplete. Opting for a safe route via the screen nearly proved disastrous as Rankin crashed the party and nearly picked off the pass, forcing a punt that was returned by Gunnar Oakes to the Swanton 49.
Wasting no time, the Bulldog offense immediately went to the air. Rolling to his right, McComb hurled a bomb that the aforementioned Mr. Oakes pulled down at the Waynedale 11. Lawniczak, a 5′ 10″ 175 pound fireplug with a helmet and shoulder pads, took it from there. He picked up five on the first down carry, then another two on second down. With a third and three at the three, Lawniczak bulldozed through for the second touchdown of the night. The Kobak kick was sure, and with 8:19 left in the half, the Bulldogs had a 17-0 lead.
Waynedale returned the kick to their 26, then tested the interior of the Swanton defense. The test proved to be less than fruitful as two runs both lost yardage. Facing a third and a dozen, the Bears again returned to the air, only to find Jonathon Shanks waiting to swat away the pass and force a punt. The ball bounced out of bounds, and Swanton returned to the business of offense on their own 42.
This time around, fortune favored the Bears. Lawniczak gained three on first down, and another three on second. A pass to Gilsdorf was overthrown. Coach Mike Vicars rolled the dice on fourth down, but a sweep by Gilsdorf was stopped short of the marker. Waynedale took over on downs at their 49.
The Bulldog defense again held fast, and facing a third down the Bears returned to the air, only to find Gilsdorf waiting. The senior defensive back picked off the pass, and Swanton again went back on offense at their 44.
Once again, Lady Fortune smile upon the Bears. Lawniczak was hit in the backfield for a loss of one, and Rankin lost his footing and went down after a gain of one. McComb got into the act and gained four on a quarterback draw. Swanton was forced into their first punt of the night, which Waynedale received via the fair catch at their own 24 with time winding down in the half.
The Golden Bears finally began to put a drive together, and began a push upfield. They got to the Swanton 48 before the drive began to fizzle, but with less than 2:00 on the clock, they were aided by an offside call that gave them a third and four at the Bulldog 42. It was there that their prayer was answered as a deep heave into the endzone was brought down with a one-handed circus catch to give Waynedale their first points of the night. The PAT kick was good, and with 1:40 left in the half, the Bears had made it a 17-7 game. The celebration on the Waynedale sidelines would prove to be short lived, though.
The ensuing kickoff rolled out of bounds, and the Bulldogs opted for a rekick. This time around, the kickoff went up pooch-style, and the Bulldogs fell on the ball at their own 49. A first down run netted three to the Waynedale 48, and then the McComb to Oakes show silenced the Golden Bear faithful with a pass play that put the ball down at the Waynedale three. Lawniczak carried the ball to just short of the goal line, and with 26 seconds left in the half, McComb pushed the pile across the goal line for a touchdown. The Kobak kick made it 24-7, but the Bears were not about to go to the locker room without trying to recapture lightning in a bottle.
Kobak kicked a squibber that the Bears fielded at their 37. Working quickly, they were able to move the ball to the Swanton 43. Facing a fourth and two with 0:03 left on the clock, the Waynedale braintrust returned to the Hail Mary. This time around though, all that they found was Gilsdorf who intercepted his second pass of the night as time expired. The Bulldogs went into the locker room feeling good with a 24-7 lead, while the Waynedale Golden Bears left the field wondering how to get past the Swanton 40.
In the third period, the Bulldogs would commit enough offensive and special teams gaffes to answer the Bears’ questions.
The Bears kicked off to McComb, who fielded the ball at the 10 and returned it to the 20. Rankin gained six on a sweep, then lost a pair on a sweep left. McComb found Antonio Cervantes, who was dropped short of the 30. Coach Vicars opted for a huge gamble on the fourth and one, but Lawniczak came through with an off tackle gain of four to move the sticks. McComb rolled right and fired to Oakes, but the ball was batted away. Rankin was knocked out of bounds after a run of two. On third down, a deep pass attempt from McComb to Gilsdorf was picked off by the Bears, who took over on the Waynedale 37.
A sweep on first down moved the ball to the Swanton 48 and a first down. Opting to air it out, the Waynedale line failed to keep Dean Sego at bay, and he chased the quarterback down for a loss of nine. Looking to get the yards back on second down, the quarterback rolled left, but was forced to throw the ball out of bounds when Gilsdorf shut down his passing lane. With the defense expecting the pass, Waynedale opted for the run on third down and 19, gaining a dozen to make it fourth and seven. It was now the Bears who rolled the dice to go for it on fourth down, but before the ball was snapped, Waynedale was flagged for a false start, making it fourth and 12.
Carrying forth with their plan, the Bears’ quarterback faced a huge blitz and threw up a hurried lame duck. Showing exceptional concentration, a Waynedale receiver managed to get under the wobbler and haul it in for a first down at the Swanton 35. The Bears went back to the air, but with Sego breathing down the neck of the quarterback, the pass fell incomplete. The aggressiveness of the Bulldog defense was taken advantage of on the next play as they overpursued on the interior, allowing a draw play to explode up the middle for a gain of 15. A run for three was followed by an incomplete pass into the endzone. A run of five set up a fourth and two from the 12. Rolling the dice, a draw play netted four and set up a first and goal from the eight. The Bears immediately tried for six, but with Sienkiewicz bearing down on the quarterback, the ball was thrown out of the back of the endzone. That was not to be the case on the next play, as the pass was caught for a touchdown. The PAT kick made it a 24-14 game with 6:13 left in the third.
Less than two minutes later the score would change again.
The Waynedale kickoff came down and was promptly fumbled, with the Bears recovering the ball on the Swanton 20. This time around, Waynedale decided to bring a new wrinkle into the offensive scheme. The second half saw the Bears turning to the wildcat offense, and the tactic immediately proved successful. Four plays after recovering the fumble, Waynedale was again in the endzone. After the kick, the Swanton lead had dropped to a field goal at 24-21.
The nightmare called the third quarter still had 4:45 left for the Bulldogs to endure.
The Waynedale kickoff took a strange bounce, hitting Gilsdorf in the leg and bouncing out of bounds at the Swanton eight, where the Bulldogs took over. Lawniczak ran for two on first down, but a pitch to Ryan Timpe netted nothing. A third down pass to Oakes fell incomplete, forcing a punt to the momentum drunk Golden Bears, who set up shop at the Swanton 41. A jet sweep right picked up 18 to the 23. The Dogs got a break on the next play as the quarterback slipped down for a five yard loss. Another jet sweep brought the ball down to the 20, and on a third and seven, the Golden Bears took their first lead of the night with a 20-yard touchdown pass. The PAT kick made it a 28-24 game.
Their lead was gone. Their defense was getting burned by the wildcat. Their offense was misfiring, and their special teams play was dismal. For the first time in the game, adversity had nullified all three phases of the Swanton game, all in less than one period…and there was still 1:44 left in that period. It was rise up or die time in Bulldog Country. The Purple and White powerhouse had not come this far to do the latter.
For the first time on the evening, Waynedale kicked off to the Bulldogs in defense of a lead. The nightmare third quarter again rose up, as again the kickoff was fumbled by the special teams. This time though, the Bulldogs were able to recover the ball at their own 34.
Lawniczak took the first run for a yard, but adversity arrived in the form of a flag on second down. A holding call moved the ball back to the 26 for a second and long. Timpe appeared to have a running lane, but he lost his footing and slipped down after a gain of three. Needing something to ignite the fire on a third and 15, McComb dropped back to pass on the last play of the third. Looking for Gilsdorf, McComb heaved the ball into the cold night sky. Gilsdorf made an adjustment, and with defenders in tow, grabbed the jump ball at the Waynedale 40.
The nightmare third period was finally over, and the Bulldog offense had finally reawakened. In true Swanton style, the Bulldogs would punch adversity squarely in the teeth on the next play.
With the Gilsdorf reception, the hometown boys came off the field with a spring in their step that hadn’t been seen since the end of the first half. They endured a semi-self induced thrashing in the third, but on the first play of the fourth period they grabbed ‘Uncle Mo Mentum’ from the Waynedale sideline and chained him to the Swanton bench. McComb took the snap and gave the ball off to Rankin. The line opened a lane past the first level, where Rankin wove his way into the second level and down the right sideline. 40 yards later, he was across the goal line and the Bulldogs had limited the Waynedale lead to all of a minute and 54 seconds. The Kobak boot made it 31-28.
The Golden Bears returned to the offensive at their own 31. They were able to get a first down out to the 43, but then went three-and-out, with their punt rolling out of bounds at the Swanton 20. The Dogs also went three-and-out, with their punt rolling dead on the Waynedale 36 with 8:41 remaining.
A first down run gained a yard, but a run out of the wildcat on second netted 38 down to the Swanton 25. The ensuing run picked up a pair, but another run out of the wildcat brought the ball down to the two…and it also brought yellow laundry. The Bears were caught blocking in the back, negating the run and setting up a second and 19 from the 34. Opting for the air, the second down pass fell incomplete. A third down pass was swatted away by McComb. With time running down in the game, the Bears decided to go for broke on a fourth and 19, but Gilsdorf knocked the ball away in the endzone. The bullet was dodged; Swanton took over on downs at their own 34 with 6:32 left in the game.
Lawniczak was stacked up at the line on the first down run, but McComb gained four on a keeper. On third and six, McComb rolled left and found Oakes out beyond midfield, moving the chains and giving the Dogs the ball at the Waynedale 46 with 5:30 remaining.
Chewing up the clock and the ground at the same time, Lawniczak picked up four on first down. Rankin followed with a run for seven to move the chains with the clock ticking under the 4:30 mark. The Bears needed a big stop, but what they got was a load of Lawniczak, who plowed his way through the line and into the secondary for a gain of 21 to the Waynedale 14. Content to continue running the clock, Lawniczak ran for a yard, then was met at the line for no gain. On third and nine, McComb rolled right and found Oakes for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 2:55 remaining. Kobak added the PAT. The score was 38-28, and all that was left to do was to prevent the Golden Bears from pulling off a miracle.
The defense was up to the task.
The Kobak kick was taken back to the Waynedale 40. First and second down passes fell incomplete, and a third down screen was met by the Dogs’ D, who smelled it out for no gain. The fourth and ten play was whistled dead at the snap, with the Bears losing five yards on an illegal motion call. Facing what had become a fourth and 15 from the 35, the pass that the Bulldogs were expecting was delivered. That delivery was interrupted by Gilsdorf, whose one-handed interception of the ball, his third pickoff of the night, sealed the deal for the hometown boys.
Alabama Crimson Tide Head Coach, Nick Saban, once said, “One thing about championship teams is that they’re resilient. No matter what is thrown at them, no matter how deep the hole, they find a way to bounce back and overcome adversity.” On this night, the Swanton Bulldogs proved that statement to be true. The lessons learned in this, the first playoff victory in the history of the Swanton Football program, will come in handy as they face the #1 ranked Edison Chargers in the next stop on the tournament trail.
Timothy Kays may be reached at email@example.com