CANAL FULTON — As he posed for photos with his teammates following Saturday’s 21-13 win over Cuyahoga Heights in the Region 25 championship game, Lucas senior Logan Niswander was briefly overcome by emotion.
It was the only time any of the Cubs lost their composure on a cold and rainy night at Northwest’s Smilek Stadium.
Junior linebacker Ethan Wallace recovered a Cuyahoga Heights fumble at his own 1-yard line with just 27 seconds remaining in the game as the Cubs reached the state semifinals for the first time in school history.
“We’ve been close so many times. It’s like the weight of the world is off our shoulders,” said Niswander, the Lucas quarterback and safety, while fighting back tears. “I couldn’t be any happier right now.
“We beat a great team. They won three straight regional championships and were state runner-up two years in a row. They were here for a reason.”
The second-seeded Cubs (11-2) built a 14-0 halftime lead on touchdown runs of 10 yards by Tommy Zirzow late in the first quarter and 31 yards by Ethan Sauder midway through the second.
Top-seeded Cuyahoga Heights (10-2) got back into it in the third, taking advantage of a pair of Lucas miscues. The Cubs received the second-half kickoff, but were forced into a punting situation. The punt never got off, however, as the rain-slick ball slipped through Niswander’s hands. The Redskins would cash in on the blunder when quarterback Sam Shafer hooked up with Jason Bartosik on a 6-yard pass to cut the deficit to 14-7 with 7:50 remaining in the third.
Lucas fumbled the ball away on its ensuing possession and Cuyahoga Heights took over at the Lucas 20-yard line with 6:30 remaining in the third. Running back Max Alpert scored on a 4-yard run, but the PAT was wide and the Cubs had a 14-13 lead.
It would remain that way until Zirzow got loose for a 30 yard touchdown run with 10:43 remaining in the fourth quarter. The PAT gave the Cubs a 21-13 advantage.
“We stayed the course and we stayed together as a team,” Zirzow said.
Cuyahoga Heights turned the ball over on downs near midfield with 9:45 remaining and the Cubs went back to work. Lucas drove deep into Cuyahoga Heights territory, but Zirzow was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-one from the Redskins’ 10.
Cuyahoga Heights took over with 4:55 remaining and marched all the way to the Lucas 1-yard line. But with less than 30 seconds to play, Wallace pounced on a fumble to preserve the victory.
“They were running the traditional option and the quarterback went to pitch it and they fumbled it,” Wallace said. “I saw it on the ground and I was like, ‘I’m getting it no matter what.’ ”
Lucas will play Canal Winchester Harvest Prep in the state semifinals Saturday at a site to be determined. Harvest Prep beat Newark Catholic 22-15 in the Region 27 final at Westerville Central.
“We told our kids all week it’s about staying composed,” Lucas coach Scott Spitler said. “I think a lot of it was last year getting so close and then having it taken away so late. They weren’t going to be denied.”