St. Viator's season ends at Sterling

The first half of Saturday afternoon's Class 5A football playoff game between Sterling and St. Viator was a low-scoring affair, as the two teams combined for eight points before halftime.

But when the Golden Warriors started clicking offensively - and their defense created two more takeaways - the Lions simply couldn't keep up, falling 34-17 in the opening-round matchup at Roscoe Eades Stadium.

The first half was a defensive showcase for both teams. The Lions defense got two crucial fourth-down stops and a safety to keep the game at a one-score margin before the half, and the Golden Warriors' defense enjoyed similar success, forcing four straight punts before nabbing an interception in the final minute.

Sterling had a promising opening drive going from its own 35, moving 51 yards on a handful of plays to the St. Viator 14, but the Lions got a huge 4th-and-2 stop on quarterback JP Schilling, inches from the first down marker.

"I think we were a little bit confused up front, and then we were running a little bit harder in the second half," Sterling quarterback Kael Ryan said of the slow start. "I think we woke up in the second half. I don't think we were playing the way we needed to play."

The Warriors followed a quick St. Viator three-and-out with a 5-play, 58-yard scoring drive to take a 6-0 lead. With 2:56 remaining in the first quarter, quarterback Kael Ryan found wide receiver Dylan Ottens deep over the middle of the field for a 52-yard touchdown.

The Lions punted on their next possession, but pulled within 6-2 on the next Sterling drive, as a holding penalty in the end zone resulted in a safety.

St. Viator got a 4th-and-1 stop on the next Warriors' possession at its own 49, tackling Ryan just short of the sticks.

With just under a minute to play in the second half, the Lions threatened to take the lead after a 6-play, 68-yard drive, led by quarterback Charlie Dolsen, who replaced an injured Cooper Kmet in the first quarter. But an Isaiah Mendoza interception at the 1-yard line averted the imminent danger and preserved the 6-2 halftime lead.

"That's a game-changer. If that's a touchdown and then they come out and return that kick [to start the second half], it's a two-possession game," Ryan said. That's really tough to come back from in a half, so huge play by him. The defense was great. The secondary was great today."

On the opening kickoff of the second half, wide receiver Michael Nix scooped a ball off a hop at the 7, and ran untouched down the left sideline for a 93-yard touchdown, giving St. Viator a 9-6 lead 15 seconds in.

"In a game like this, you gotta keep your head up no matter what the score is, and coming out of halftime, we were down and we just needed a big play coming out, and I got it done," Nix said. "But we couldn't get it done in the end."

But Sterling was quick to answer. On the next possession, Schilling engineered an 11-play, 77-yard scoring drive, cashing in with a 4-yard touchdown run off left tackle for a 13-9 lead as 7:22 remained in the third.

Ryan reeled in a diving interception on the next Lions' possession, and capitalized on the short-field advantage with a quick scoring drive as 5:11 remained in the third. At the end of the 5-play, 31-yard drive, Ryan punched in a touchdown from 3 yards out, extending the Warriors' lead to 20-9.

"We strategized a little bit more, and we just went out there and executed," Schilling said of the second-half surge. "We didn't want it to be our last game."

Down two scores with just over 17 minutes left, St. Viator was quick to answer. On the second play of its next possession, Dolsen rolled to his right and uncorked a deep ball to Nix, who slipped a tackle before scoring a 79-yard touchdown. Dolsen hit Nix again on a slant for the two-point conversion to make it a 20-17 game with 4:26 to play in the third.

But that's all the offense St. Viator could muster.

With 2:26 left in the third, Ryan took a quarterback keeper 58 yards down the right sideline for a 27-17 Sterling lead. Feeding off that energy and the two-score lead, the Warriors' defense never faltered again.

"It was huge [for our momentum], and Mason Emin absolutely hounded his guy on that. That should be Mason Emin's touchdown on that, because he just did an amazing job," Ryan said of the 58-yard touchdown run. "And up front, we really took care of them on that play, but Mason Emin especially. He just put his guy on the ground. It was ridiculous."

Added Ottens: "Same with Isaiah's play, it brought so much energy and effort to our offense."

With just over two minutes to play and a 10-point lead, Sterling went for it on 4th-and-4, but missed the touchdown as Ryan's pass sailed just over the hands of a leaping Schilling in the right corner of the end zone.

But Ryan would seal the game one play later, scooping a fumble at the St. Viator 12-yard line and taking it back for six and a 34-17 lead with 1:57 remaining.

"It was the biggest [sigh of relief]," Ottens said. "It was like a thousand pounds lifted off my back. It was great."

"It was a great feeling, knowing that they were not likely to be in striking distance anymore," Schilling said.

Ryan piled up 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, while going 4-for-8 for 77 yards and a touchdown through the air. He also returned a fumble 12 yards for a touchdown. Schilling rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, and went 5-for-6 for 30 yards as a passer; Antonio Tablante added 76 rushing yards on 14 carries, and Ottens scored on his lone reception of 52 yards.

Dolsen finished 12-for-27 with 191 passing yards and a touchdown. Nix was Dolsen's top target, catching four passes for 114 yards with a 79-yard touchdown reception. He also scored a 93-yard kickoff return touchdown. St. Viator's offense was held to 35 rushing yards and 2.3 yards per carry.

"We were in a great battle right from the start. Neither team was able to strike, and I think both teams were having issues with penalties, and we faced adversity in a number of forms there - both with penalties and injuries," St. Viator coach Dave Archibald said. "Went into the locker room with a four-point game, so it was anybody's there, and then in the third quarter we were able to come out and take the lead right away, and then strike later. It was a battle against a good football team and a battle with some adversity that we faced from things we couldn't control today. We fought as hard as we could, and I'm awfully proud of our seniors and our guys for getting us here."

"Lot of injuries. Dudes with leading tackles on our team getting hurt, out for the game," Nix said of the late second-half struggles. "Our starting QB getting out in the first quarter wasn't a big help, but Charlie Dolsen did a good job stepping in, so I think injuries were a big part of that."

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