It is often hard for a widely anticipated football game to live up to its preconceived hype.
That was not the case last Friday night in Austintown when the undefeated Fitch Falcons hosted the legendary, and equally unbeaten, Tigers of Massillon. One look at the mass of people in the sold out stands and the amount of talent on the field and it was apparent that this was more than just a high school football game in early autumn. The atmosphere had a small college feel to it, but the flow of the game was even larger. Although at one point it seemed as if this contest would end up a blowout, great play by both teams at the end made it an instant classic. Fitch stayed perfect by taming the terrific Tigers 30-27 leaving everyone, including the Falcons' head coach, amazed.
"It was a great game to be a part of and a great game for the fans," said the usually stoic Annarella who displayed youthful exuberance throughout the contest.
No doubt the fans were into this matchup from the outset. Fitch hosted its 2013 inductees on its annual Hall of Fame night. The student section was a sea of pink to support breast cancer awareness month. Massillon, whose fans seemingly would travel in droves to Egypt to watch their beloved Tigers, packed its side of the bleachers to the top row. Even Massillon's live tiger mascot, Obie, made the trip north in his gold-plated cage. The gathering was impressive enough to elicit a heartfelt response from Fitch's coach.
"We were tremendously pleased with the support," Annarella said sincerely. "I'm glad we came through for them at the end."
It seemed for 44 minutes that everyone in Falcon Nation would be partying well before the final gun sounded. In fact, a chorus of "Na Na Na Hey Hey Hey Goodbye" could be heard from the Fitch side of the field after Falcon quarterback Antwan Harris slithered into the end zone for a score with 4:45 remaining in the fourth quarter. Harris' sneak staked Fitch to a 30-14 lead.
Remarkably, the road team was not nearly ready to hit the road home. Freshman quarterback Danny Clark was advertised to have a cannon for a throwing arm and he put it on display, especially in the final four minutes. Clark directed two scoring drives to cut Fitch's lead to just three points with 2:40 to go. The Tigers somehow got the ball again and with seconds remaining Clark was stopped by Fitch linebacker Tyler Hewitt as the signal caller attempted to scramble for the winning score. In a game that featured 57 points, 230 rushing yards by the Falcons and 358 passing yards by Clark, it was once again Fitch's defense that saved the night.
"I was a little scared there at the end," Annarella said honestly. "Our defense played great when it had to. You can't take that away from them."
Coach Annarella also would not take anything away from how his previously undefeated adversary and its star quarterback performed either.
"Massillon did an outstanding job not quitting," said the coach. "(Clark) is going to be a good one. They battled for 48 minutes."
While Massillon's offense was giving it all it had against the fantastic Falcon defense, Fitch's offense was playing perhaps one of their best games of the season. Harris had 164 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He also connected with Joey Harrington on a quick pass that the fleet wideout took 35 yards to the house. Fitch's outmanned offensive line even controlled the line of scrimmage much better than any expert expected.
"Our offense stepped up," said Annarella. "We executed well. Our offensive line did a good job. We knew we needed an "A" game in all three phases and we got it."
The third phase coach Annarella referred to was special teams and that unit was truly special due to the output of kicker/punter Nick Sheely. Sheely was perfect on all four of his extra point attempts and he boomed almost every kickoff into the end zone forcing the Tigers to start their possession on their own 20 yard line. It was as a punter, however, where Sheely really shined, nailing four punts inside Massillon's 10-yard line, disabling Clark from taking too many risks. One of those awesome punts even set up a Fitch safety.
"(Sheely) played his best game of the year," Annarella said. "He'll even admit that. Everything just clicked for him."
The 7-0 Falcons hope everything continues to click for them when they host Marion Harding this weekend. It will be Senior Day in Austintown as the Falcons pay tribute to their twelfth-graders before the special 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon start. That unusual start time should actually help the home team.
"Our kids can get an extra day of rest," Annarella announced. "We traveled (to Marion Harding) for a Saturday night game last year and I think it would be fair for all of us that this is an afternoon game."
The extra rest will allow Harris to heal a little more from a bum leg. The quarterback is listed as day-to-day. Senior linebacker Brett Weidenthal was not so lucky last Friday as he aggravated a separated shoulder against Massillon and it is feared he may not be back anytime soon.