Magnolia had to fight from behind for the second time in as many weeks Friday night.
And again, Coach Mark Batton’s club came up big again as the Blue Eagles defeated Monroe Central in a 13-7 defensive struggle at Alumni Field in New Martinsville.
”I told the kids that they won that game with heart,” Batton said as his team won its fourth straight to improve to 4-2. ”We were searching for something that would work and then execute it and we were able to move the ball a bit.
”But we kept plugging away and were fortunate enough to play great defense and we found something here and there (offensively) and Steven (Zajdowicz) was the ticket.”
Zajdowicz finished with 147 yards rushing on 28 carries, including a 9-yard sweep late in the fourth quarter that put Magnolia up for good.
But it was his first touchdown — a 47-yard screen pass from Justin Fox — that finally got Magnolia’s offense on the board early in the fourth.
Magnolia had been able to put drives together in spurts during the first three quarters, but a penalty here and a big stop for a loss there by the Seminoles kept the home team off the scoreboard.
Trailing 7-0 with 11 minutes to play, Fox hit Zajdowicz on the screen on a 3rd-and-10 from the Monroe Central 47.
The play couldn’t have been set up any better as Zajdowicz had three blockers in front of him, clearing a path. And after sidestepping a defender at the 5-yard line, he found the end zone for Magnolia’s first score.
Monroe went back to work on the ensuing drive and nearly hit the big play when quarterback Derek-London Dierkes found an open Josh Duffy for 32 yards.
Duffy nearly broke free for a touchdown but Jason Utt dove at his feet and tripped him up just enough to save the touchdown.
Two plays later, Dierkes lost the handle on an errant shotgun snap and Magnolia’s Isiah Kotson recovered, ending the potential go-ahead drive.
”That was huge,” Batton said. ”If they score, we have to go back and battle again.
”When you fight and fight all game long to put a score up to tie the game, and they take it right back, that’s a huge momentum swing so that was just a big play.”
Magnolia proceeded to march 78 yards in 11 plays with Zajdowicz capping the drive with his 9-yard scamper.
The key play came on 3rd-and-16 from the Monroe Central 44.
Fox dropped back to pass and was pressured out of the pocket toward the right sideline.
He avoided a potential sack and alertly fired downfield to an open Colt Street who hauled in the pass for a 35-yard gain and a first down. Zajdowicz scored on the next play and the lengthy first-down conversion seemed to deflate a game Seminoles’ defense.
”The key was we gave up two enormous third-down plays,” Monroe Central coach Jay Circosta said. ”They executed and it broke our back.
”Other than when we didn’t wrap up, I thought we did a good job of containing them.
”It’s a tough one to swallow because with both of us being 3-2, it would have been a big boost to either team that won.”
Circosta knew that if his team was going to be successful, it needed to establish a consistent ground game to keep Magnolia’s defenders from teeing off on Dierkes in passing situations.
That plan never came to fruition as the Blue Eagles loaded up the box, swarmed to the ball and limited Monroe Central to 52 yards on the ground.
”They brought a lot of people to stop it and we weren’t able to generate much offense with our run,” Circosta said. ”I give credit to Magnolia They played hard defensively and brought a lot of guys at us.”
Zach Ring was the Seminoles’ leading rusher with 42 yards on 17 carries.
Dierkes threw for 108 yards, but Monroe had to resort to trickery — a 27-yard reverse pass from Mikey Russell to Jesse Headley — to get on the scoreboard.
Fox had his best game since an opening week loss to Williamstown, throwing for 155 yards and a touchdown on 10 of 23 passing. He shook off a rocky first half and finished with more than 100 yards during the final 24 minutes.
But for Magnolia — much like the previous week against Weir — the big story was Zajdowicz.
A week after carrying the load 31 times, Zajdowicz logged 28 carries against the Seminoles and finished with 194 yards of total offense.
And as the game wore on, the Blue Eagles senior seemed to get stronger with every carry.
”I told our team that he’s a tough-nosed, hard runner that will continue to run hard whether he’s out in the open or in traffic,” Batton said.
”We knew we had to stop him, which I thought we did for the most part, but he was able to execute the big plays and that hurt us.”