The Swanton football team appears to be playoff bound. Read the first line again if you must, but believe it. While officials numbers have not been released, the Bulldogs are likely headed to the playoffs for the first time since 1995 after a thrilling and often heart stopping 31-21 victory over the Liberty Center on Friday night in David W. Hansbarger Stadium, the venue that was named in honor of the last man to coach the Bulldogs into the post season.
It was a game in which the final outcome was in doubt until a 19 yard touchdown pass from Bryce McComb to Gunnar Oakes with 23 seconds left on the clock sealed the victory. But it was another play just two minutes earlier, a short five yard pass from McComb to Robbie Gilsdorf from the Swanton 37 yard line off a fake punt on a fourth down and four to go, that will be remembered and talked about for years to come by the more than 1,600 people in attendance.
“We were definitely in a punting situation and we had the option of a rugby punt on that side or if he (McComb) could get the four yards he would take it and Bryce decided to throw it which is an option but it was not one I thought we would take out there and Robbie Gilsdorf made an amazing catch,” said Swanton head coach Mike Vicars describing the almost unbelievable play.
It was a gamble that came with a high risk but yielded an even higher reward, allowing the Bulldogs to run down the clock and walk off the field in celebration of their biggest win in 20 years.
Swanton took the opening kickoff and set up shop at their own 41 yard line after a 26 yard return by Jonathon Shanks. Using a balanced mix of runs and passes, McComb engineered a nine play drive highlighted by 16 yard run by Tim Rankin and two pass receptions from Gilsdorf, the second finding the end zone from seven yards out. Nick Koback booted the extra point and with 9:19 left in the first Swanton led 7-0.
Liberty Center, with NWOAL rushing leader Zack Carpenter, responded quickly and emphatically to knot the game at seven apiece. They marched down the field in eight plays with Carpenter carrying four times for 16 yards and Dylan Sexton finishing the drive with a 29 yard touchdown run right up the middle with 6:08 to go that tied the game after Connor Strauss kicked the PAT.
Another nice kickoff return, this one of 32 yards by Gilsdorf, put Swanton on their 43 yard line to start their second offensive series. The Bulldogs began the drive with four straight carries for 27 yards by freshman running back Michael Lawniczak to reach the LC 34. After a one yard loss by Rankin, McComb hit Oakes with a 17 yard pass completion and a first down. Lawniczak capped off the drive on the next play rumbling 12 yards into the end zone and with 2:23 left in the quarter the Bulldogs had a 14-7 lead after Koback’s extra point.
After receiving the ensuing kickoff the Tigers literally hit the ground running again, invading Swanton territory on a 12 yard run by Christian Chambers and two rushes totaling 32 yards by Carpenter. But the Dogs’ defense stepped up with two tackles for a loss and a pass breakup and forced LC to punt to start the second quarter.
Swanton received the punt but hurt themselves on the next drive with two major penalties including one that negated a 42 yard McComb to Gilsdorf pass play for a touchdown and they punted the ball back to the Tigers.
Starting at their own 25 yard line Liberty Center put together a scoring drive of nine plays aided by another major Bulldog penalty, this time for face masking. Sexton went in from 11 yards out and the game was tied at 14 with 4:10 remaining in the half.
The last four minutes of the half were put to good use by the Dogs, as McComb led them to a go ahead score by passing for 38 yards and running for 40 more including a one yard plunge into the end zone. Koback added the extra point and Swanton took a 21-14 lead into the locker room.
Liberty Center brought the second half kickoff back to their 44 yard line but fumbled the ball away on the fourth play from scrimmage. Attempting to capitalize on the turnover, the Bulldogs drove down to the LC eight yard line but a 25 yard field goal try was just wide to the left.
The Tigers took advantage of the missed field goal and went on a 15 play, 80 yard drive that consumed almost all of the rest of the third quarter and saw Sexton punch it in from the three for his third touchdown of the night. The extra point tied the game and the teams entered the fourth at 21-21.
Swanton responded with a 10 play drive of their own that stalled at the LC 17 but this time Koback split the uprights from 35 yards away to reclaim the lead for the Dogs at 24-21 with 7:46 to play in regulation.
As expected, back came the Tigers as they churned out tough yardage on the strength of seven Carpenter runs down to the Swanton 32 yard line. On fourth and two they sent Carpenter into middle one more time where he was stuffed by the Bulldog defense just inches short from moving the chains.
Swanton took over on downs with 3:37 remaining and four downs later pulled off the historic play.
“I’m really proud of these kids after what they went through last week. They showed the character of the people they are,” said Vicars commenting on his team’s response to the disappointing loss to Wauseon. “Now we’re in a position next week at home to fight for a league championship. That’s all you can do is give yourself a chance. I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this.”
Statistically, Swanton outgained Liberty Center in total offense 365 yards to 291. Lawniczak led all runners with 177 yards on 27 carries and McComb was 7 for 16 with 99 yards through the air with the receiving tandem of Oakes and Gilsdorf making all seven receptions.
On the defensive side of the ball Shanks had seven tackles and JD Reisinger and Chase Avalos had six tackles each.
This Friday the Bulldogs host the Delta Panthers with a lot on the line for both teams besides the Kettle Trophy and bragging rights for a year. A Panther win should assure a playoff spot for Delta and a Swanton victory would guarantee their first league title in two decades. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
Bill O’Connell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org