MASSILLON - The dream lives.
St. Clairsville's storybook season will continue next Friday as the Red Devils return to Stark County to play for the Ohio Division IV state championship.
A week after knocking off defending regional champion Johnstown-Monroe, the Red Devils moved up the ladder this week and dethroned defending state champion Creston Norwayne 40-27 in front of a large turnout at blustery Paul Brown Tiger Stadium on Friday night.
St. Clairsville receiver Dan Monteroso looks to break away from a Norwayne tackler Friday night at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.
"We had kids make play after play tonight on both sides of the ball," St. Clairsville coach Brett McLean. "This is just special!"
While reaching the final game in the state is exciting, don't think for a minute that McLean and his Red Devils are about to rest on their laurels.
"There are so many words I could say about this, but the mission isn't complete," McLean said. "We've said this in our locker room, early in the year, that we planned on being in (this season) until the end and we've got one more to go."
Next up is a 3 p.m. date with Clinton Massie, which like St. C., is making its first appearance in an OHSAA state championship Game. Massie, which has set an OHSAA record for points scored this season, took out top-ranked Columbus Bishop Hartley, 45-21.
"We're going to go to work on the bus ride home," McLean smiled. "This is just great for our kids, the school, the town and this is going to be an awesome week. Cincinnati (area) is pretty darn good football, so we can't pop off about anything. We have to get back to work."
Norwayne, which defeated Kenton on this same turf last December to win its first state championship, had no answer for the Red Devils' passing game that saw senior quarterback Matt Kinnick complete 17 of 29 passes for an astounding 430 yards.
More specifically, it had no answer for senior Dan Monteroso, who proved that big-time player make big-time plays in big-time games.
"How about Dan Monteroso?," McLean exclaimed. "He's done what everyone thought he could do out here on one of the biggest stages that he could be on."
Doing basically everything except selling popcorn and taking tickets, Monteroso saddled the Red Devils up on both sides of the ball.
"(Monteroso) is really good and he had a heckuva game," Norwayne coach Joe Harbour said. "He did a good job making plays, but they're good across the board. It's cliche, but big players make big plays in big games and (Monteroso) certainly did that."
His stat line read like this on the offensive side: 10 catches, 264 yards, two touchdowns and for good measure, he delivered a devastating crack-back block that sprung senior Jerrid Marhekfa for a huge 76 yard touchdown, which put St. C. back on top after the Bobcats had tied the game at 27-27.
"The coaches called my number and I just stepped up and tried to make plays," Monteroso said in between posing for pictures with young Devisl fans. "I probably watched more film this past week than I've ever watched in my life."
Monteroso, who is heading to Boston College as a wide receiver, delivered arguably his finest performance of his career on the defensive side when he recorded two picks, a sack and five tackles.
"I made a couple of reads and just broke on the ball and made some plays," Monteroso said.
The Red Devils, who hadn't been at this point in the season since 1986, showed early they had come to Stark County meaning business. Taking advantage of a defensive pass interference, St. C. reeled off a 14-play, 64 yard drive that was capped by a 1-yard plunge by Kinnick.
"We didn't tense up coming up here," McLean said. "We talked all week that we had built this opportunity for ourselves. We looked at this as an opportunity and not an obstacle. We had to take advantage of it and these kids were determined."
The teams went back-and-forth from there until there was 8:14 to play in the half. Brady Berger ran the first Norwayne score in from a yard out and then Monteroso got loose on a 48-yard pitch and catch with Kinnick.
Hard-running senior Jon Zimmerly, who finished his brilliant prep career with 155 yards on 28 carries, plunged in from 2 yards out to tie the game at 14.
After a Red Devils' drive was stopped with three consecutive sacks, Norwayne marched right back down the field and took its first lead when Joe Dreher found Richie Smith on a 28-yard hookup.
However, the Red Devils were unfazed.
"I was excited with how we matched up against another part of the state," McLean said. "I have a ton of respect for the high school football played in the northern part of this state. I wanted to see us get on the field with a team from up here and we past the test."
Kinnick got the Red Devils back within one when he scored his second rushing touchdown of the night. Two huge completions to Monteroso of 14 and 33 yards set up the score.
"This is just an unbelievable feeling," Kinnick said. "Dan made so many plays tonight. Jerrid (Marhefka) was huge, too. And we can't forget about Jay Gossett. He made so many plays on both sides of the ball."
St. Clairsville's defense, which rose to the challenge each time it had to, forced another Norwayne punt. Taking over at their 29, the Red Devils went to work and marched to paydirt in eight plays and 71 yards when Kinnick found Monteroso for a 43-yard strike in which he slipped a couple of what-would-be-tacklers.
Junior kicker Zach Musilli's PAT was perfect and the Red Devils took a 27-21 lead into halftime.
After the teams traded possessions to open the third quarter, Norwayne knotted the game at 27 when Zimmerly went in from 14 yards out. The snap on the PAT was botched.
"They outperformed us across the board, whether it was a fumble, a blown opportunity in the red zone, a chance to make a play on the ball," Harbour said. "They just did a great job of seizing opportunities and we didn't. We played with great, great effort and passion, just not great execution."
For the second straight week, when things got tight, Kinnick and the Red Devils called on Marhefka, the slick senior receiver. He took a slant route 73 yards basically untouched to the house. Musilli's PAT made it 34-27.
"This is an unbelievable feeling," Marhefka said. "We made plays when we had to. Dan, though, deserves to be the MVP of this game. He really came through on both sides of the ball."
One of those two aforementioned Monteroso picks came on the ensuing possession at the 2 yard line, but St. C.'s defense had to step up again as a Red Devils' attempt at a field goal was blocked.
The defense held on a fourth-and-long and St. C. capped the scoring with Kinnick's third TD plunge from a yard out.
The Bobcats' defense bottled up junior jet Jaylon Brown for the most part. He ran for 81 yards on 26 carries.
Along with Monteroso, St. C. received exceptional defensive play from its linebacking corp of Michael Ferns, Luke Smith and Cole Stephen. Stephen, who returned to the lineup after missing the regional final, led the team with 10 tackles.
Along with those four, Marhefka was again solid against Norwayne's big-play targets. Jay Gossett, Corey Ernest and Colby Lindsay were also standouts against the Norwayne run.
"Our whole defense really played well," McLean said. "We held a team that averages 50-plus points to 27. That's just a credit to our kids and to our coaching staff."
The Red Devils allowed 411 yards defensively. But, they forced three turnovers.