ZANESVILLE - There were many people who wondered how St. Clairsville's football team would respond when it faced its first real challenge.
Through the first 12 weeks, the Red Devils breezed to victories, but the Red Devils received a solid test Friday night at John D. Sulsberger Memorial Stadium and passed with flying colors.
The Red Devils had an answer for each jab the Johnstown-Monroe Johnnies threw in their Division IV, Region 15 championship game and celebrated the school's first regional football championship since 1986 with a 37-29 victory. "
St. Clairsville’s Jerrid Marhefka (6) scores on a 66-yard touchdown run as Johnstown-Monroe’s Tyler Thompson gives chace Friday in Zanesville.
"Awesome ... just awesome," St. Clairsville coach Brett McLean said. "We haven't celebrated anything to this point. We've just stayed focused the entire time, and we're still focused, but we told the kids that this is one of the biggest goals we had all year, and we had to come out and fight tooth and nail to get it. This was our first four-quarter, grind out victory all year."
The victory sends the Red Devils to Division IV State Tournament, which will open next Friday at a venue to be determined Sunday by the OHSAA.
The Red Devils will take on defending state champion Creston Norwayne, which easily dispatched previously undefeated Brookfield in the Region 13 title game.
St. Clairsville appeared as if it was headed for another laugher when it scored the first 17 points of the game.
Senior quarterback Matt Kinnick darted 13 yards untouched, junior kicker Zach Musilli was perfect on a 21-yard field goal and Michigan bound junior Michael Ferns hauled in a 12-yard touchdown from Kinnick all in the first quarter for the Red Devils' lead.
"To get up early was huge," McLean said. "We had to get our nerves and jitters out, too. That put them behind the 8-ball, but they stayed patient. Once they got a score on us and had some momentum, they just ran what they run."
St. Clairsville carried what seemed like a commanding 24-7 lead into halftime after Kinnick found senior standout Jerrid Marhefka on a fourth-down play for a 21-yard touchdown. Musilli was again perfect on the PAT.
Johnstown-Monroe, which was the defending Region 15 champion, cut the lead to 24-21 early in the fourth quarter when quarterback Tyler Thompson darted into the end zone from 23 yards out for his third rushing touchdown of the contest.
"It got tight there," McLean said. "No one faltered and everyone just went out and executed what they were supposed to do and stayed focused. I've never seen doubt in these kids."
The Johnnies' momentum was short-lived.
Two plays into the next drive, Kinnick found Marhefka across the middle on what appeared to be headed for a short gain.
Marhefka, who was a part of St. C.'s regional championship squads in basketball and track last school year, picked up a couple of blocks and was off to the races for a 66-yard touchdown.
"How about J-Mar?," McLean said. "That play was probably the biggest play of our season. It was senior to senior and it was well executed.''
Kinnick, who finished the game 14 of 30 for 260 yards and four scores through the air, knew it was just a matter of staying patient down the stretch.
"We just had to keep doing what we do because we knew we needed a score at that point," Kinnick said. "J-Mar came up huge in the clutch."
The St. Clairsville defense held the Johnnies' well below their average on the ground. Both Thompson and sophomore standout Cody Farley surpassed the 100-yard mark with 129 and 102, respectively.
"We put our defense in some tough situations all night, but they stood tall," McLean said. "
The Red Devils' offense received another outstanding effort from junior jet Jaylon Brown. Though he didn't reach the end zone for the first time all season, Brown finished with 142 yards on 26 carries.
He also caught three passes for 38 yards.