In a game where the Northmor defense did everything it could to keep star running back Dane Nauman in check, the Highland Scots ran away with a 38-7 road win behind a number of other weapons to claim a share of the KMAC football crown in their last year in the league.
Quarterback Cooper Merckling completed 11-of-18 passes for 152 yards and a pair of scores — both to receiver Jay Melchiori, who finished with four catches for 62 yards on the night. Mason Duncan added four catches, while Gavin Hankins made the most of two carries, netting a total of 92 yards which included an 80-yard scoring run. Nauman also wound up with a big game, using a late 60-yard run to push his total to 133 on the night, easily boosting his season total over the 2000-yard mark.
“That’s what we talked about since the beginning,” said Melchiori of claiming a share of the league title along with East Knox. “We just had to make it happen.”
“I’m so proud of them,” added head coach Ty Stover. “We challenged them all week and they responded. The biggest thing about this group is that I can’t believe this is week 10 and they can’t believe it. It shows how we get along.”
Northmor had an early chance to get the momentum on their side. After forcing a three-and-out on Highland’s game-opening possession, the Golden Knights drove from their 35 to inside the Scot 10 thanks to a punishing ground game led by Max Lower, who had 49 of those yards. However, the drive stalled and a field goal by Caleb Schnuerer barely missed.
“It hurt not to score, but it was not demoralizing,” said Northmor coach Scott Armrose. “We moved the ball down the field against a good ball team. But they made adjustments and we didn’t.”
After both teams punted on their next possessions, Highland got on the board first. A pass from Merckling to Layton Shaffer netted 42 yards and set up a 30-yard scoring pass to Melchiori that gave the Scots a 7-0 lead late in the first period after Caleb Hunter’s extra point try was good.
Highland would then add more points in the second quarter. Midway through the period, Merckling connected with Melchiori again, who made a tremendous one-handed catch in the end zone to score from 17 yards out. On the team’s next possession, they got a 23-yard field goal from Hunter to lead 17-0 with under a minute to go in the half.
That would be enough time for the Golden Knights. Quarterback Marcus Cortez ran for 13 yards and then completed an 18-yard pass to Lower, one for 22 yards to Andrew Armrose and a 13-yard touchdown to Trenton Ramos to make it 17-7 going into the half.
Northmor started the second half with possession of the ball, but couldn’t make anything happen. Highland would then take control of the game. Hankins made it 24-7 with his long touchdown run midway through the third, while the Scot D forced punts on Northmor’s first three possessions of the half.
“Highland beat us at the point of attack,” said Armrose. “We didn’t control the line of scrimmage, especially in the second half.”
Stover felt his team did a great job of swarming to the ball on defense on the night.
“The nicest thing as a coach to watch is when one guy wraps up and six or seven other guys come to finish the tackle,” he said.
Highland would add two scores in the fourth quarter on a two-yard run by Merckling and an interception return by Kolton Stover to provide the final margin of victory. Armrose noted that he brought in his back-ups earlier than usual in the game simply due to having a playoff game the next week.
“I know it hurts now and it’s two weeks in a row I’ve seen that hurt in their eyes,” said the coach. “We had to get out of there healthy. These kids are all friends, but county games are so physical and brutal. I didn’t want to get anyone thrown out or hurt.”
Both teams will have playoff games this coming weekend and, according to Joe Eitel’s unofficial tally, both will be at home. Northmor, which got 105 rushing yards by Lower, 64 passing and 32 rushing from Cortez and three catches for 24 from Ramos, is project to host Fredericktown in a Division VI game.
“I don’t think it’s hard,” said Armrose of his team rallying after enduring a two-game losing streak. “The kids know what an opportunity it is to play a home playoff game. These kids are tough and have great leadership. We’ll be good to go.”
With the win, Highland is projected to host Linden McKinley. The combination of winning a share of the league title and potentially hosting a playoff game is music to Stover’s ears.
“I hope we get back to Sparta,” he said. “I love being in Sparta, but we’re just blessed to be where we are. I’m just tickled to death. It’s something I’ve wanted to do a long time.”
Added Nauman: “We just have to keep our heads down and keep working.”