HOMER CITY — The losing streak has come to a highly anticipated end for the Homer-Center Wildcats.
Following three consecutive losses that were exacerbated by injuries to Ben Schmidt and Cobe Daugherty, the Wildcats needed something to change in their favor before entering the playoffs. That change came with Schmidt’s return at quarterback for the first time since his injury two weeks ago.
Despite committing three turnovers in the first half, Homer-Center overcame a nine-point deficit and shut out Shade in the second half of a 16-15 victory in a Heritage Conference-WestPAC crossover game between fifth-place teams. The Wildcats also ended a three-game stretch in which they failed to score in the second half, and their one touchdown in the third quarter was enough to make the difference and ensure a home game next week in the District 6 Class 1A playoffs.
With Schmidt back under center, Homer-Center racked up 443 total yards of offense. Schmidt rushed for 164 yards and passed for 103 and overcame two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown to open the scoring.
“Ben is such a great kid,” Wildcats coach Greg Page said “There were times in the second half where we didn’t want him running the ball, but he was still running. It was good to have him back at the command because you then have Daugherty out wide, and we have all the guys we want to throw the ball to.”
Homer-Center (6-4) received the opening kickoff and returned it to midfield. In his first run, Schmidt scrambled for a gain of 21 yards to put the Wildcats inside the 30-yard line. However, while evading heavy pressure a few plays later, Schmidt was hit as he tried to throw the ball away, and the pass was intercepted by Vince Fyock, who returned it 75 yards for a touchdown and a 6-0 lead for Shade after a failed extra-point kick.
Shade (6-4) forced the Wildcats to a three-and-out and the Panthers’ offense took the field for their first drive. They quickly stalled, but their punt on fourth-and-5 hit a Homer-Center player, triggering a live ball. Shade recovered at the Wildcats’ 24-yard line but settled for Lucas’ Haynes’ 27-yard field goal and a 9-0 lead.
Starting from deep inside their territory, Homer-Center crawled downfield in a meticulous but productive strategy. A 17-play drive netted five first downs but no points after the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs at the 6.
Homer-Center did net points on the next possession when the Panthers were called for holding in the end zone, resulting in a safety that made the scored 9-2 early in the second quarter.
On the ensuing free kick, however, the Wildcats fumbled away the ball on the return. Shade, which lost starting quarterback Braden Adams to a season-ending injury last week, turned to Kaden Koleszarik. The Panthers passed on every play but one during their next drive, which ended with an incomplete pass on fourth-and-2.
After only three plays, the Wildcats picked up more than 30 yards to the Panthers’ 36-yard line. They eventually faced fourth-and-2 from the 16, and Schmidt scrambled for the game-tying touchdown from 16 yards.
With two minutes remaining before halftime, Shade needed to speed up the offensive pace to retake the lead. Tyler Valine put the drive into motion by securing a 49-yard completion and getting stopped just shy of the goal line. He scored the touchdown on the next play, but the Wildcats stifled the Panthers two-point attempt on a fake kick, leaving the score 15-9 at halftime.
Homer-Center’s defense took over in the second half. After forcing a three-and-out on the first possession, the Wildcats relied on Justin Walbeck during a 14-play drive that stretched deep into the third quarter. Walbeck carried 10 times for 62 yards, capping the drive with a 1-yard run. Schmidt’s successful PAT kick gave the Wildcats their first lead of the night at 16-15.
Walbeck finished with 110 yards on 24 carries, and Homer-Center rushed for 340 yards.
“It was definitely all on the linemen for sure,” Walbeck said. “They blew a lot of holes open.”
After another three-and-out from the defense, Homer-Center began to pull together another long and methodical series, featuring a fourth-down conversion with a 13-yard pickup by Schmidt. From the 21-yard line, Schmidt then threw a pass to the end zone that was intercepted by Valine. He was ruled down at the 1 before falling into the end zone, leaving the Panthers’ offense little wiggle room to operate.
Shade quickly escaped the tricky field position with Koleszarik completing a 38-yard pass to Fyock. Two plays later, Fyock struck again with another catch for 27 yards. The Panthers reached the 20-yard line before a fourth-and-4 pass fell incomplete.
Koleszarik finished 17-for-37 for 262 yards. Fyock caught 11 passes for 182 yards.
“Kaden did a great job,” Shade coach Don Fyfe said. “We’ve been working him in because Braden has taken some shots this year, and unfortunately he got himself hurt last week. But I thought Kaden made some great plays and great throws tonight.”
“We started taking away the short stuff — kind of,” Page said. “But then they saw that they had matchups with Fyock and one of our better defensive players, Mock. It’s like what we try to do with Daugherty against other kids too, so I credit them for making an adjustment.”
Homer-Center erased four minutes off the clock before punting on the next drive. Shade took over and Koleszarik found Fyock again for a 49-yard play that might have gone for a touchdown had the receiver not tripped at midfield. Shade flat-lined on another fourth down with an incomplete pass near midfield with five minutes to go.
Shade never got the ball again. Homer-Center converted three straight third downs, including a 12-yard strike to Daugherty when the Wildcats needed 10. From there, Homer-Center forced Shade to use its timeouts and ran out the clock.