WILLIAMSTOWN - Weirton Madonna left it all on the field and came within a couple heartbeats of handing No. 2-seeded Williamstown its first defeat of the season in a thrilling West Virginia Class A first-round playoff game Friday night.
The Blue Dons grabbed the lead three times in a back-and-forth first half, then fell 20 points behind early in the fourth quarter before rallying just short in a 38-31 setback that the chilled Blue Dons' fans, players and coaches may be talking about for a long time.
''I couldn't be prouder of these kids,'' said Doug Taylor, first-year head coach of the Blue Dons. ''With all the injuries we had going into the game, not too many people across the state gave us much of a chance. That was a gutsy, gutsy performance. No one on our team has a reason to hang their heads.''
Madonna came into the game without its stellar sophomore quarterback Ross Comis and key running back Christian Roe. To make matters worse, the Blue Dons lost one of their receivers, Marcello Biondello, with a leg injury sustained during pregame warmups and then quarterback Garrett Hypes had to miss one series after a hard sack, but returned to the game to lead two late touchdowns that got the his team back in the game. Unfortunately, he later had to be removed again with a possible neck injury that had him taken to the hospital to be checked out.
''It's some kind of neck injury,'' Taylor said. ''Hopefully it will turn out to be just a stinger and he will be fine.''
At the conclusion of the game, all of Hypes' teammates and coaches raced off the field and wished him well before he left in an ambulance.
Mistakes on special teams killed Madonna's chances of knocking off the 11-0 record Yellowjackets, as did one big mistake on defense.
Trailing 21-18 at the outset of the third quarter, the Blue Dons had Williamstown in a third-an-8 situation when the Yellowjackets' sensational Trey King slipped out of the backfield and got behind the secondary to take in a deep sideline toss from Jake Tracewell for a 63-yard pickup to the Madonna 13. Two plays later, King swept right end and raced the final 11 yards for the touchdown. Garrett Butler, perfect all night handling the kicking duties for the hosts, put the conversion attempt squarely through the uprights extending the lead to 28-18.
Later in the third quarter, defensive end Spencer Beall broke through to block a Madonna punt with Benjamin Amos scooping the ball up at the Blue Dons' 20 and racing untouched into the end zone.
Another mistake in the kicking game on the first play of the fourth quarter saw the ball snapped over the punter's head with the Yellowjackets taking possession at the Blue Dons' 6. Despite trailing 35-18, Taylor's defense stiffened and forced Butler to kick a 19-yard field goal for a 38-18 advantage with 10:41 remaining.
Madonna rallied back to score two touchdowns in less than 5 minutes to get back in the hunt. Hypes and Will Bowser, both sophomores, combined for two big pass completions. The first accounted for 41 yards to the Williamstown 32. On the next play, Bowser took off over the middle again and snagged another perfectly thrown ball for the TD. Although the Blue Dons' failed for the fourth straight time on the 2-point conversion, the deficit was down to 14 at 38-24 with 9:19 left.
Forcing a quick three-and-out, Madonna regained possession at the 32 and needed six plays to go the distance again. Hypes' 27-yard completion to Daniel Pietranton sparked the drive that was concluded when Nick Ossman, who returned from the injured list, went in from a yard out. Joseph McCombs kicked the PAT with a 38-31 reading with still 6:06 on the clock.
The Blue Dons then got a huge break, recovering a Williamstown fumble at the Yellowjackets 32, but this opportunity ended with Hypes' pass being intercepted at the goal line by Eli Gray. Hypes was injured on the play, forcing him out of the contest for keeps.
Still, Madonna forced another quick punt by the Yellowjackets and wound up getting the ball back at the Williamstown 47 with 2:40 remaining. Anthony Antinone re-entered the game at quarterback and scrambled for a couple of first downs moving the ball to the 20. However, on fourth-and-10, all he could get was 5 yards on another scramble, turning the ball back to the Yellowjackets with 16 seconds remaining.
The first half was like a tennis match with the lead going back and forth. Hypes, playing in the secondary on defense, intercepted a Tracewell pass and got plenty of blocking supporting while running down the left sideline in front of the Blue Dons' bench for a 71-yard interception return.
Trailing 6-0, the Yellowjackets moved 66 yards with King doing most of the damage, carrying six times for 38 yards including the final 5 for the touchdown. Butler's PAT put Williamstown up 7-6 with 11:07 left in the half.
Madonna bounced right back to take a 12-7 lead when Elliott Nero caught a Hypes pass near midfield, broke a tackle and sped all the way to complete a 69-yard TD play.
Williamstown struck through the air to regain the lead and again it was King doing the honors with his reception and run that covered 54 yards.
Madonna went back ahead 18-14 on Nero's 24-yard dash to paydirt. After taking the handoff, he faked a step to the right and cut back over the middle for the touchdown.
Michael Adams' 5-yard run climaxed a 54-yard drive for the 21-18 lead with 1:30 remaining in the half.
Hypes completed 10 of 18 passes for 225 yards, while the Blue Dons' rushing game was led by Nero with 62 yards on 10 carries and Ossman with 47 yards 11 attempts. Nero also caught five passes for 112 yards.
''The blocked punt that gave them six points and the bad snap that resulted in the field goal cost us the game,'' Taylor said. ''Lady Luck did not favor us for sure. But these kids gave everything they had. They never quit fighting until the end.''