KINNIKINNICK, Ohio — At the end of it all, it was still a good night to be a Raider.
The River Valley football team had its fairy-tale season come an emphatic end Friday night during a 34-0 setback to unbeaten Zane Trace in a Division V, Region 17 quarterfinal at ZTHS in Ross County.
The seventh-seeded Raiders (7-4) put up a spirited fight in the program’s first-ever gridiron playoff contest, as the guests trailed only 6-0 after the opening period of play. The second-seeded Pioneers, however, came away with three consecutive interceptions during the second canto — which gave the Red, White and Blue a comfortable 21-0 halftime advantage.
Both teams traded possessions throughout the third canto, but neither team mustered any points during that span. Second-seeded ZTHS (11-0) capped things off with a pair of touchdowns in the fourth to wrap up the 34-point triumph, the Pioneers’ first playoff win in six appearances.
The Silver and Black — who set a school record for wins in a season this fall — committed four turnovers in the contest, with half of those leading to 14 Zane Trace points. It was also the most points that River Valley allowed in a game this year, as well as the first time that Raiders had been shut out.
The night didn’t go anywhere near how RVHS coach Jerrod Sparling had hoped it might, but the fifth-year mentor was still tremendously proud of his kids for getting themselves — and this program — into this spot. As he noted, the Raiders just ran into something a little better.
“First off, my hat’s off to Zane Trace. They were absolutely incredible tonight and had a really great game plan in place for us,” Sparling said. “You know, my heart is broken for my seniors and my underclassmen … and the community. I think these kids represented River Valley well, and we had some chances to make things different, but we didn’t get it done.
“In a lot of ways we looked like a team that had never been in the playoffs before, but the kids also showed their heart and left it all on the field. I’m proud of all of them for what we’ve been able to accomplish this year.”
The Pioneers took the opening kickoff and marched 68 yards in seven plays for the first score of the game. Joel Dunkle received an option pitch from quarterback Austin Harris and rumbled 16 yards to paydirt, making it a 6-0 contest with 9:21 remaining in the first quarter.
The Raiders responded with a 13-play drive that started at their own nine, but the drive ultimately stalled out at the ZTHS three. River Valley had first-and-goal at the seven and was at the two-yard line on third down, but the hosts held and took over possession at their own three.
Each team punted on its next two possessions, giving Zane Trace the ball at the RVHS 46 just 26 seconds into the second stanza. The hosts followed with a 9-play, 46-yard drive that ate up 4:34 while also extending their early lead.
Truman Love broke out of a tackle and away from a pair of RVHS defenders during an 8-yard TD run, making it a 14-0 contest with seven minutes left until halftime.
And then, disaster struck the Silver and Black.
The third play of River Valley’s ensuing drive resulted in a pick-6 by Zane Trace’s Zane Davis, who scampered 43 yards to the house following his interception for a 21-0 edge with 6:05 remaining.
Aiden Place and Alex Wolff each came away with interceptions on the next two Raider possessions, but neither turnover resulted in points. The Pioneers also returned a small favor with a lost fumble following their last takeaway, which was recovered by senior Mike Williams with 1:43 remaining in the half.
Neither team mustered another first down the rest of the way, allowing Zane Trace to take a 21-0 cushion into the break.
The Pioneers had slightly over twice as much offense in the opening 24 minutes as RVHS, with the hosts holding a 167-81 edge in total yards. The Raiders had only 14 rushing yards and four first downs in the first half, while the hosts had 127 rushing yards and eight first downs before the intermission.
The Silver and Black put together successive drives of 12 plays for 48 yards and 11 plays for 51 yards on their first two second half possessions, but both surges ultimately resulted in loss of downs inside the Zane Trace 25-yard line. The Pioneers’ first three second half possessions, which went into the start of the fourth quarter, also resulted in punts.
Zane Trace finally ended the second half scoring drought with 6:31 left in regulation as Wolff hauled in a 42-yard pass from Harris, which capped a 2-play, 44-yard drive while giving the hosts a 28-0 advantage.
ZTHS executed a pooch kick into the middle of River Valley’s kickoff return setup, but nobody on the Raiders squad managed to fall on the ball. Ty Shanton recovered the turnover for Zane Trace at the Raider 28, then came the final nail in the proverbial coffin.
The Red, White and Blue needed only three plays and 61 seconds to cover the 28 yards, as Dunkle hauled in a 9-yard pass from Harris for a 34-0 contest with 5:30 left in regulation.
The final five-plus minutes had a running clock due to there being a 30-point lead in the second half, but the Raiders did manage to march the ball down to the ZTHS 18 just before time expired — doing so with mostly second-team players.
The win allows Zane Trace to advance to next week’s Region 17 semifinal against third-seeded Alexander, who defeated sixth-seeded Rock Hill on Friday night by a 37-7 count.
The Pioneers outgained the guests by a 250-202 overall margin in total yards of offense and also finished the night plus-3 in turnover differential. ZTHS rushed 39 times for 159 yards, while the Raiders netted just 93 rushing yards on 34 carries.
Both teams collected a dozen first downs apiece in the contest. RVHS was flagged three times for 34 yards, while Zane Trace was penalized eight times for 72 yards.
Jacob Campbell led the Raiders’ ground attack with three carries for 35 yards, followed by Mark Wray with 33 yards on eight attempts. Justin Arrowood also gained 19 yards on a dozen totes.
Dayton Hardway was 9-of-31 passing for 94 yards while also throwing three interceptions. Hardway, at one point in the first half, threw three interceptions and zero completions over 13 attempts.
Kirk Morrow led the RVHS wideouts with five catches for 59 yards, while Wray hauled in three receptions for 31 yards.
It was the final football game for seniors Arrowood, Williams, Morrow, Hardway, Wray, Tyler Twyman, Sam Payne, George Williams, Ty Smittle, C.J. Jennings, Tyler Ward, Dylan Greenlee, Jacob Morris, Travis Sigman and Josiah Johnson in the Silver and Black.
“I cannot say enough about this groupof seniors and what a remarkable thing that they’ve done here in our community. They’ve definitely taken the road less traveled,” Sparling said. “These guys have been around when everyone called us losers or when we were regularly getting beat by 30 or 40 points. But these guys, these guys stayed the course. They bought in and worked harder when most other people would have jumped ship.
“Being in the playoffs is their reward, and now they are the measuring stick of greatness with River Valley football. It didn’t go the way any of us had hoped, but it’s a start. The future teams at River Valley will all be aiming to join this group of fine young men and what they have accomplished.”
Dunkle led the ZTHS rushing attack with 75 yards on 11 carries, followed by Love with 45 yards on 10 attempts and Harris with 37 yards on 14 totes. Harris was also 7-of-10 passing for 91 yards and a pair of TD tosses.
Wolff led the hosts with 50 yards on two grabs, followed by Pierce Mowery with three catches for 28 yards. Dunkle also had two catches for 13 yards for the victors.
The Pioneers have now won 16 consecutive football contests, dating back to Week 6 of the 2014 gridiron season.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.