ASHLAND – No one is looking at Mitch Heilman yet. The 6-foot, 175-pound junior quarterback with nimble feet and dartboard accuracy said he has received zero college attention whatsoever – no looks, no offers.
That might change if he registers more performances like the one on Friday night.
Heilman propelled Ashland (4-1, 1-0 OCC) to a runaway victory over visiting Mount Vernon (2-3, 0-2) on Homecoming Night, 41-13.
The gunslinger finished 18-of-29 passing for 248 yards and a touchdown. But Heilman changed the game with his legs, which Ashland utilized in the second half to break the contest wide open.
Tied 6-6 at halftime, the Arrows were having trouble cracking the scrappy Mount Vernon defense, as drives frequently stalled in Yellow Jacket territory. Ashland’s last march of the half ended at the Mount Vernon 4-yard line, a turnover on downs after Heilman’s fourth-down pass was broken up in the end zone.
“We struggled, we came out a little slow in the first half,” Heilman said. “But we got stuff together at halftime and came out in the second half and we were ready to go.”
Heilman had ran the ball just four times in the first half, but that was about to change. Head coach Scott Valentine said he saw an opportunity to exploit the middle of the field, which had become open when Mount Vernon was forced to stick to Ashland’s receiving threats. He told Heilman to attack it.
And attack it, he did.
Heilman ran the ball eight times in the second half, including twice in a row coming out of the locker room, for 72 yards and a score. He ran often on designed keepers, punishing the Yellow Jacket defense for respecting his ability to find open receivers downfield. For Mount Vernon, it was a nightmarish dilemma.
“It’s so tough because they spread you out, and then to have a kid who can run the ball like that, there’s natural seams in the defense,” Mount Vernon head coach Mike Kerr said. “We harped on it all week, we knew that was a point of emphasis. We had some linebackers that were kind of spying those guys, that quarterback. But unfortunately, they got blocked a couple times, and when that happened he was able to find holes.
“And then he was able to bounce it outside a couple times when we had everything clogged up in the middle. He made some plays where really, he shouldn’t have had opportunities to make plays. And sometimes, you’ve just gotta tip your hat to those kind of kids.”
After a series of quarterback keepers to keep the defense honest, Heilman lobbed a tight spiral down the Ashland sideline, which landed softly in the hands of junior wideout Parker Henkel for a 21-yard touchdown.
The Yellow Jackets came back down the field with a vengeance, however, still down just one score. They made it to the Ashland 45-yard line, where they faced a fourth-and-one. Still feeling confident in his team’s offensive attack – the Yellow Jackets racked up 131 total yards in the first half and were superb in late-down situations – Kerr elected to send the offense back out onto the field.
After a short drop-back, quarterback Noah Hubbard’s pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage. The home crowd roared. The Arrows took over on downs near midfield.
In a sense, the rest was history.
“There’s no doubt that’s a huge play in the game,” Valentine said. “Because if we don’t get that stop, they might get a score and go from there. But we got the stop and then we went down and scored, and that kind of swung it our way.”
The Arrows continued their balanced mix of designed runs and long throws, and with 4:42 left in the third quarter, Heilman reached the end zone on an 8-yard touchdown scamper. Following a dominant effort from his offensive line, he strolled in untouched.
“I put in work in the offseason and I have the ability to do it,” Heilman said of his running game. “And with the line I have, I can find holes and make big plays for us.”
From there, the Mount Vernon offense became progressively more choppy. Three-and-outs were followed by long Ashland drives, as the Yellow Jacket defense couldn’t seem to get off the field in the second half.
The Yellow Jackets’ tailback tandem of Ashton Fisher and Wyatt Gregory struggled again to get going, following a Week 4 performance where they ran for 34 combined yards. The duo combined for just five yards in the second half on Friday night (and 47 for the game), as Ashland keyed in on the two playmakers all night long.
Fisher and Gregory also didn’t get many touches in the second half (they had just five carries combined), however, because the Yellow Jackets found themselves in a hole and were forced to pass to try to climb back into the game.
“When we got down, it kind of took us out of our game plan a little bit,” Kerr said. “And so we weren’t able to come back to those things that were effective in the first half. So we’ve gotta keep things close to be able to use those guys the way we want to.”
Up 20-6 heading into the fourth quarter, the Arrows didn’t lay off the gas.
Heilman fired a 21-yard touchdown strike to junior Cade McQuate to make it a three-score game with 10:51 to play.
Mount Vernon scored next on a 79-yard drive that resulted in a 19-yard Hubbard touchdown pass to senior Gavin Moyer, but that was the last sign of hope for the Yellow Jackets on Friday night.
Hubbard threw a pick-six on the team’s next offensive possession, as Ross Garrison took an interception 25 yards to the house. Then, with 14 seconds left in the game, the Ashland defense forced a Hubbard fumble, which linebacker Ryan Ludwig ran in for a touchdown from midfield.
For Mount Vernon, it was a dismal ending to the team’s second straight loss. The Jackets will have to find answers to their offensive struggles moving forward, as they have mustered just 13 points over the last two weeks. Fisher and Gregory, who carried the offense during non-conference play, have recorded just 81 total yards during that time span.
Mount Vernon will face Zanesville (3-2) in a non-conference home game next week.
Meanwhile, Ashland seemed satisfied after kicking off OCC play in impressive fashion. The Arrows were conference co-champions last season, and Friday night represented their first step towards taking home another trophy in 2018.
“It’s a big win, to get our first conference win,” Heilman said afterwards, a wide smile on his face. “I mean, that’s one of our goals, is to win conference every year. So hopefully we can get back there and do that.”
Ashland will travel to Madison (1-4) next week for another OCC matchup.
HOMECOMING HONORS: Before kickoff, the 2018 Ashland High School Homecoming King and Queen were announced. Daniel Arimi was crowned King while Leah DeBracy was named Queen.
Along with Arimi and DeBracy, the Homecoming Court consisted of Satch Garlock, Taylor Hendershot, Gavin Harper, Taylor Rafeld, Samuel Boyer, Megan Shafer, Genevieve Wesner and Jack Shultz.