By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
In periphery ways, Friday’s first-round playoff game began to look much like Rootstown’s difficult loss to Mogadore one week prior.
It was raining.
The field was muddy and wet.
A division rival was staring back at them from across the line of scrimmage.
The Rovers were once again playing on their home field.
Fortunately, for Rootstown, the similarities ended there and the most glaring difference was the final scoreboard.
Rootstown 43, Southeast 7.
Inside the Rovers’ 43 points, though, were all of the details that were a stark contrast from last Friday that helped allow the team to celebrate its first playoff win since 2017 and the first for head coach Chris Knopick.
The win advances the Rovers to a Division VI, Region 21 second-round game against Mineral Ridge next Friday. The Rovers will host the Rams, who defeated Jackson-Milton on Friday, 35-6.
The win was also the 400th all-time for the Rootstown football program. Rootstown becomes the sixth in Portage County history to reach the milestone, joining Mogadore (721), Ravenna (647), Aurora (590), Kent Roosevelt (577) and Garfield (427).
“We preached all week about focusing on ourselves,” Rootstown head coach Chris Knopick said. “I was really proud of how we played tonight, and I thought we showed a lot of maturity.”
As for those details that decorated Friday’s outcome, it started with an impressive 23-point first quarter.
The Rovers set an immediate tone and it started with the first series of the game.
Southeast elected to receive the opening kickoff and Rootstown’s defense pushed Southeast back on three consecutive plays, including a momentum-setting sack by Dominic Siglow.
Deep it its own territory, Southeast was forced to punt on fourth down. On the snap, the ball went sailing over the punter’s head, hit the ground near the goal line and rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
On the ensuing free kick, the Rovers were set up in great field position on the Pirates’ 48.
With a balanced opening-drive offense, the Rovers marched down their short field before senior quarterback Ryan Piscitani pushed across the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown.
Blake Mullaley added the extra point and midway through the first quarter (6:45), the Rovers led 9-0.
“We thought that Southeast was a team that thrived on emotion,” Knopick said. “We talked a lot about coming out and stamping it out fast, if we could quell that emotion, we felt like we could take control of the game. Regardless of seeding, this was still a playoff game and this was still a rivalry game. We had to be ready because it is win or go home.”
The Rovers’ quest to quell the Pirates showed again on Southeast’s next possession.
Michael Lattimer was first to a fumble and recovered it on the Pirates’ 30-yard line and, again, the Rovers capitalized on the short field on a 1-yard touchdown from Dominic Duvall on a quick-hitting run that left him untouched as Southeast’s entire defense followed the motion on the right edge that made the play appear like a stretch run for Morgan.
The score put the Rovers up 16-0.
Thirty-five seconds later, Rootstown was back in the end zone, with Piscitani scoring his second touchdown, this one coming from six yards out, giving the Rovers a 23-0 lead.
By the early second quarter, a 20-yard run for Morgan, with 8:56 on the clock, pushed Rootstown’s lead to 30-0.
“Tonight was tough for us, because we are not built to play from behind, especially against a good team like Rootstown,” Southeast head coach Patrick Youel said. “Rootstown is a big, physical, tough team. You don’t get as many possessions against them so you have to capitalize on the ones you get. We struggled to do that tonight.”
It was Southeast’s final game in the Portage Trail Conference. The Pirates will shift to the Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference next season, marking the first time the school has played outside of a Portage-County based league in the district’s history.
It was also the final game for 11 Southeast seniors that Youel expressed appreciation for.
“Our seniors are great kids, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to coach them,” Youel said. “They are the first class in our football history to qualify for the postseason in all four of their years. They really continued on our culture that we believe in, OTOV (One Team, One Vision), and they are going to do great things in their lives.”
For the game, Rootstown rushed for 283 yards, needing only 34 carries for a team average of 8.3 yards per carry.
Morgan led the way with 180 yards on 19 attempts, while Piscitani rushed for 58 yards and Duvall, who added a second-half touchdown for his second score of the night, had 45 yards.
Piscitani added a throwing touchdown, an 8-yard pass in the third quarter to Chris Cooper.
Southeast senior Case Myers produced the Pirates’ only touchdown, busting a 67-yard run in the second quarter. Myers finished with 153 yards on 12 carries, accounting for 77 percent of the team’s offense.