The Cleveland Heights Tigers weren’t ready. And really, how could they be?
With special teams coordinator Mario Houston lying in a hospital bed after early Friday morning, the passionate wails of high school football were replaced with tense smiles and a lot of nervous milling around at Sparky DiBiaso Stadium on Saturday morning.
Early on, the distracted Tigers struggled to find their footing on the muddy field and were actually shut out in the first half for the first time this season. But ultimately, the team found its composure under difficult circumstances and subdued Euclid, 19-7.
The Tigers are now 5-0 and 2-0 in the Lake Erie League, while Euclid fell to 0-5. Cleveland Heights was ranked No. 1 in the OHSAA’s first Division I, Region I computer playoff ratings heading into Saturday’s contest, but the team clearly took the field battling more than just the Panthers.
Houston suffered the stroke shortly after midnight at home Friday and had brain surgery later that day to relieve pressure at the Cleveland Clinic. The game was originally scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday but was moved to 10 a.m. today.
Cleveland Heights athletic director Kristin Hughes and head football coach Jeff Rotsky said Houston, 40, is still in critical condition but more stable as of Friday evening.
“We were maybe not going to play this game. I don’t know if it was necessarily the right thing or the wrong thing to do. I have a lot of feelings on that,” Rotsky said. “ … This was an emotional day. We’re by no means out of the woods with this whole situation, so we’re going to try to pull from each other and try to support Mario and his family.”
Getting through the game wasn’t easy. Senior quarterback Bryce Jones said the team needed to rally itself to get going in the second half.
“Doing it for coach Houston helped out with everything. It was pretty much the coaches and the seniors also and all of them coming together just telling them you’re going to play and you’re going to win,” Jones said.
The team was playing with heavy hearts, and Rotsky was proud of how players honored Houston, especially after they fell behind, 7-0, at the half. Jones had a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs, and Braxton Gamble had a 6-yard run in the second half for the win.
“In 15 years coaching, this is one of my teams' proudest moments. I really believe in the way they came back after this,” Rotsky said. “It’s just a blessed day for our kids.”
In the second half, the defense forced Euclid into four three-and-outs and a turnover on downs.
The Tigers dominated the third quarter and took their opening second-half drive and marched down the field on nine plays for 82 yards to set up Gamble’s power run into the end zone for a 7-7 tie at 6:23 of the third quarter.
Then Jones capped a 12-play drive with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone to put the Tigers up, 13-7, with 24.7 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Tigers sealed the game in the fourth quarter with another Jones 1 yarder that finished off a 7-play, 65-yard drive at 5:05.
In the team’s warm-ups, Tigers receivers Shelton Gibson and Marcus McShepard constantly slipped on several of their cuts on Euclid’s field. It foreshadowed many of the team’s problems in the first half and ultimately forced them to pound the ball in the second.
After a rare opening-drive three-and-out for the Tigers, the Panthers returned a short punt to the Tigers’ 32, and De’Andre Rollins ran it in off left tackle for 1-yard touchdown run for Euclid’s only points of the game.
Defense minimized the Tigers’ damages in the first half. In the second quarter on first-and-15 at the Tigers’ 30, Jones threw a backward pass to Gibson that he misplayed. Gibson didn’t chase after the ball, and Euclid alertly fell on it at the Tigers’ 18.
The Tigers’ defense rose up and stopped the Panthers on four downs as Panthers quarterback Benny Walker threw incomplete on fourth-and-12 at the Tigers’ 19.
But four plays later, Jones threw an interception at the Panthers’ 48, but he would get the ball back for the Tigers after picking off Walker at the Tigers’ 5 with 3:58 remaining in the first half.
The interception seemed to inspire Jones, who had made only one of his four previous passes, as he hit Gibson for strikes of 25 and 15 yards. But the Tigers’ drive stalled at the 19, and they turned it over on downs with 53.9 seconds remaining in the half.
The Tigers host Shaker Heights at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Cleveland Heights 0 0 13 6 19
Euclid 7 0 0 0 7
Euclid – Rollins 1 run (Feeney kick)
Gamble – 6 run (Brown kick)
Jones – 1 run (kick failed)
Jones – 1 run (pass failed)