By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
Streetsboro head coach Pete Thompson had real concerns about the start of the 2023 season.
Not because he didn’t believe in his talented group of players, but because he knew his Rockets football team would experience four difficult weeks of football against four talented football teams.
During the preseason, Thompson even joked that by the end of Week 4, his Rockets could be the best 0-4 team in the state.
Turns out, the Rockets were far removed from that discussion and finished the gauntlet stretch of games at 3-1, setting the stage for what became a special season.
The year of memories came to a halt on Friday, however, in a heartbreaking 31-28 Division IV regional quarterfinal loss at West Branch.
Like any evenly played showdown, the culprit to the Rockets’ loss was hidden inside a couple of critical shortcomings in what was, overall, a well played game by the team.
“I think that we needed to be great tonight in critical situations, and we just were not able to be,” Thompson said. “And that goes for everyone, myself included. I could have probably made some better play calls, especially on our fourth downs, but I thought our guys played tremendous tonight and I am very proud of them.”
Streetsboro held two leads in the game — 7-0 and 28-24 — but those advantages only lasted for a combined 1 minute, 59 seconds.
The first lead came on a 6-yard run by Preston Hopperton, who snagged a high option flick from quarterback Cohen Klimak to race around the left corner of the line and into the end zone with 1:33 remaining in the first quarter.
Garrett Tiller connected for the extra point and 7-0 Rockets lead.
West Branch (11-1) then scored the game’s next 21 points and they came in a flurry.
The Warriors tied the game at the start of the second quarter on a 24-yard pass from Beau Alazaus to Jeremiah Thomas at the 11:46 mark. A successfully recovered onside kick gave the ball right back to West Branch, which scored less than a minute later (10:48) on a 12-yard run by Boston Mullinix.
The touchdown for Mullinex was the 42nd of his career, tying the Warriors’ program record for career touchdowns and career points (270).
Just a little over 5 minutes later, the Warriors found the end zone again on a 7-yard run by Thomas.
Eliza Hirst kicked the extra points on all three touchdowns and West Branch led 21-7 in the blink of an eye.
Fortunately for the Rockets (10-2), they scored just before the end of the first half, with Klimak connecting with Jackson Gula for a 27-yard touchdown strike up the middle of the field.
Gula was uncovered and Klimak found him for the easy score, cutting the Rockets’ deficit to 21-14, with the team set to receive the third-quarter kickoff.
“I didn’t think that we played particularly well in the first half, but to get that score at the end of the second quarter made us feel a lot better about the situation because of that,” Thompson said.
Even still, it was West Branch that put the first points of the second half on the board, with a 25-yard field goal from Hirsch with 6:07 to play in the third quarter.
Streetsboro responded with a pair of 58-yard touchdown runs by Preston Hopperton, both out of the power-I formation, and both looking like near mirror images of each other.
The first came in the third quarter (3:54), with Hopperton bursting across the line of scrimmage like he was hot out of a cannon and by the time he hit the second level of West Branch’s defense, it was a foregone conclusion that he would reach the end zone untouched. The score made it 24-21 West Branch.
Moments later, with 8:19 left in the game, Hopperton again broke free again from a power-I formation run and again from 58 yards out. This time he was touched, but only slightly as he pushed across the line of scrimmage and sprinted away from the pack for the gamebreaking, and go-ahead score.
“He’s something, isn’t he,” Thompson marveled after the game on the senior playmaker’s score that gave Streetsboro a 28-24 lead.
It lasted all of 13 seconds, though.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Rockets appeared designed to for kick protection down the middle of the field and when West Branch’s Joey Jackson eluded two Rockets that overran the play, Jackson was able to get around the right edge and needed only a couple of blocks to spring him all the way down the sideline for the stunning 79-yard kick-return touchdown that flipped the game back into the Warriors’ hands.
Unfazed, the Rockets marched back down the field and neared the red zone, but turned the ball over on downs on a fourth-and-4 play that needed to get to the 20-yard line and was stuffed at the 22. That was with 3:41 to play and West Branch was able to secure three first downs to run out the clock, including a 22-yard run by Thomas with just under a minute to play, with Streetsboro out of timeouts, that allowed West Branch to get into Victory Formation.
The Warriors will play Canton South next Friday. The Wildcats defeated Buchtel on Friday, 27-26. The game will be played at a neutral site announced by the OHSAA on Sunday.
For the Rockets, Hopperton finished with 200 yards rushing and 37 yards receiving, with three touchdowns. Klimak had 97 yards on the ground and connected on 6-of-9 passes for 103 yards. Gula finished with three receptions and 68 yards.
West Branch’s offense was led by Boston Mullinix (19 carries, 142 yards) and Beau Alazaus (12-of-22 passing for 150 yards). Alazaus’ leading target was Anthony Perry, who pulled in six catches for 73 yards.
“I am so proud of our guys,” Thompson said. “They have nothing to be ashamed of. West Branch is a good team and they have played in only a couple of close games all year. They have lit up the scoreboard, especially on this field, and I thought we competed our butts off. To comeback the way we did, on the road, I am tremendously proud of what our guys were able to do tonight and this season.”