Marquee victory: Defense keys Wooster's first-round playoff win

Marquee victory: Defense keys Wooster's first-round playoff win

Image Credit: Aaron Dorksen

What do Wooster High School’s football teams from 1986, 2014 and 2021 all have in common?

They’re the only squads in program history to win a playoff game since the OHSAA’s postseason tournament began in 1972.

The 2021 Generals made sure they will long be remembered after going on the road as a No. 14 seed and shocking third-seeded Olentangy Berlin, 23-20, in a Div. II, Region 7 playoff opener on Oct. 29.

Wooster (6-5) earned a second-round match-up at sixth-seeded Dublin Scioto (8-3) on Nov. 5.

Berlin had topped the Generals 48-40 at Follis Field in 2020, but Wooster took advantage of the OHSAA’s new, expanded 16-team playoff regions to achieve a longtime goal set by the seniors.

“It feels amazing,” said senior wide receiver-defensive back Zach Harpster, who had 10 receptions for 68 yards, threw a 45-yard TD pass to Drew Dossi and grabbed an interception. “We made history. We’re one of the (three) teams here to win a playoff game. It was just a total team effort that made it happen.”

Wooster went just 5-5 during the regular season. Few people, if anyone, outside the Generals’ locker room believed they could pull off the upset.

Berlin had defeated a senior-laden Wooster team last season and was actually seeded higher than Massillon, which blanked the Generals 31-0 in Week 9.

First-year Wooster coach Austin Holter and his staff saw things differently and got their players to believe.

“Coming off the (Week 10) Ashland win over a big rival to get into the playoffs was big,” Holter said. “We knew if we would win there, we'd have an opportunity in the playoffs. This team loves playing football, so they were excited to get an extra week.

“The fact that we had played the same Olentangy Berlin team a year ago, even though it was a loss, I think it gave our kids a sense of confidence because they understood what to expect.”

Holter said his team has continued to work and improve each week, and the playoff win was a byproduct of that.

“Our kids played their best football when it mattered most,” Holter said. “We played a great game in all three phases. I’m just so happy for our team, especially the seniors.”

The game wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated. Wooster actually led 23-7 after three quarters before Berlin fought back with a pair of TDs in the final 3:29.

Senior quarterback Drew Becker was 26-for-37 passing for 253 yards while classmates Harpster, Micah McKee (7-88 receiving) and Greg Adams (19-41 rushing, 11-yard TD) also made big plays.

Place-kicker Drew Rader continued his outstanding season by going a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals, connecting from 30 yards, 36 and 28. It helped him improve to 12-for-14 for the season while also converting 25 PAT kicks to lead the team with 61 points.

Getting defensive

Make no mistake, though, Wooster’s defense made the win possible. A year after Berlin’s offense was nearly unstoppable, the Generals held the Bears to just 1-of-9 on third down and 1-of-4 on fourth down.

“Our defensive coordinator Keaton Leppla did a phenomenal job putting together a game plan to try to take away what they did well,” Holter said. “We were able to do that early and put them in situations to have to make tough decisions on third and fourth down, and our defense came up big. We had a huge red zone turnover with Harp’s pick in the end zone in the fourth quarter.”

Wooster’s defensive line, which is entirely new this season, consists of ends Kaleb Lamb (senior) and Jaymin Walker (junior), along with tackles Tyler Boreman (junior) and Cam Harris (senior).

“They’re really improved and did a great job of changing the line of scrimmage against Berlin,” Holter said.

Lamb, who has 59 tackles and a team-high five sacks, said the team’s record didn't reflect how well they’d played entering the playoffs.

“We've gotten a lot better, especially up front,” Lamb said. “In the Massillon game, we only gave up about 120 yards to their offense. First play (against Berlin) we saw they were coming off flat and they weren’t firing off the ball, and we knew we could get them.”

The linebacking corps is led by junior Michael Howman-Williams, who is 5-foot-11, 205 pounds with a team-best 144 tackles. McKee (second with 89 tackles) and junior Seth Chamberlin (75 tackles) also have played well at linebacker.

“The energy throughout the whole week was very high,” Howman-Williams said. “Coach Lep tells us every day just to go out there and do our jobs. With everyone doing their job, we just make magic.”

The experienced secondary is loaded with two-way performers in seniors Jack Williams (69 tackles), Harpster and Drew Dossi, along with junior Bronson Morgan and sophomore Anthony Sines.

McKee and Dossi are tied for the team lead with three interceptions apiece.

“Howman-Williams runs our defense,” Holter said. “The kid is as good a linebacker as I’ve been around. He has great lateral quickness and does a great job of securing tackles. Those kids in the secondary are smart. They love the game and have great ball skills. They've played a lot of football together, which has built a unique trust.”

Leppla has embraced being promoted to defensive coordinator after serving as linebackers coach and JV defensive coordinator under Doug Haas the last two years.

“It helped having coached against Berlin last year,” said Leppla, a former three-sport standout for West Holmes and a technology resource teacher at Wooster. “We threw a bunch of different looks at them.

“We wanted to look a little bit chaotic but also be somewhat simple in our scheme. Our kids do a phenomenal job of knowing our defense, and against Berlin was the best they’ve played all year.”

Leppla and many other Wooster coaches and players savored the playoff win over the weekend but soon had their full focus on Scioto.

Whatever happens in the quarterfinals at Dublin Scioto, which lost to Berlin 17-7 in Week 3, the Generals certainly gave reason to quiet the naysayers.

“I get it from people I know, and others say it too: ‘Wooster never wins a playoff game,’” Leppla said. “Wooster has been close in the past, but for our kids to get this and coach Holter in his first year, it’s great. It gives the program a lot of momentum.”

It’s momentum the Generals hope can keep their season going for at least another week.

Aaron Dorksen can be emailed at aarondorksen24@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronDorksen.