WAVERLY, Ohio — The seniors finished their careers in a playoff game.
Everyone else on the Blue Devil sideline learned a valuable lesson about the postseason moving forward.
The Gallia Academy football team had another remarkable gridiron campaign come to an emphatic halt on Saturday night following a 40-0 setback to host Waverly in a Division IV, Region 15 quarterfinal held at Raidiger Field in Pike County.
The sixth seeded Blue Devils (9-2) had just about everything go wrong in their 12th opening-round postseason appearance, as the guests committed five turnovers and were penalized a dozen times for 85 yards en route to the program’s second shutout loss in playoff history.
The third seeded Tigers (9-2), on the other hand, notched their first playoff win since 2007 while also picking up their first victory over GAHS since 1982 — when the two competed as members of the defunct Southeastern Ohio Athletic League.
The Blue and White still lead the all-time series by a 10-4 margin.
With the exception of point-after tries, very little went wrong for the Orange and Black as they racked up 348 yards of total offense while finishing the night plus-4 in turnover differential — which included a pick-6 late in the second period.
WHS senior tailback Payton Shoemaker — who had the 50-yard interception return for a score — also chipped in 146 rushing yards and three first half touchdowns on 18 carries, allowing the hosts to storm out to a sizable 33-0 halftime advantage.
Hunter Ward completed the host scoring with a 3-yard run at the 5:57 mark of the third period. Greyson Diener converted the PAT kick to wrap up the 40-point outcome.
The Blue Devils did knock on the scoreboard’s door as James Armstrong plunged in from six yards out early in the fourth quarter, but a holding penalty negated the score while pushing the ball back to the WHS 16.
After an incomplete pass and a sack moved the ball back to the 24, Zeke Brown picked off a Noah Vanco pass that ultimately ended the threat. The Blue Devils were never closer than the Waverly 20-yard line the rest of the way.
The Blue Devils were error-free in falling behind 12-0 at the end of the first quarter, but the Blue Devils followed with a pair of second quarter interceptions and three more turnovers after halftime.
Third year GAHS coach Alex Penrod was disappointed with the way the evening ultimately turned out, but one bad night doesn’t deter from anything that his troops accomplished this year.
As he noted afterward, Waverly was simply the better team on this frigid night … but his kids also came away with some motivational knowledge.
“Obviously it is not the outcome that we wanted, but it doesn’t take anything away from a 9-1 regular season that saw our kids go through a lot of growth and development to earn a spot in the playoffs,” Penrod said. “Our kids came a long way this year and our seniors have really come a long way since going 1-9 their freshmen year. They’ve all played a big part in getting this program back to where it is and I couldn’t be prouder of these young men for that.
“Give a lot of credit to Waverly though. That’s a very well-coached team and they looked like a squad that has four straight years in the playoffs. They had that chip to get over the hump and they did it … and we learned what we need to work on in the offseason to take that next step too.”
After a pair of Gallia Academy punts and three scoreless drives, Waverly put its initial points on the board as quarterback Hayd’n Shanks found Will Futhey on a 23-yard touchdown strike for a 6-0 edge with 6:25 left in the first period.
Another Blue Devil punt turned into a drive capped with a Shoemaker 3-yard run with 2:11 left in the opening frame, making it a 12-0 contest.
The Blue and White entered the game without starting defensive lineman Zack Hemby because of an injury, then lost lineman Brayden Easton on the opening Waverly drive to a shoulder injury.
Losing two of his biggest contributors up front — especially the second one early on — proved to be a bit too much for Penrod and his staff to overcome.
“Physically, we’ve taken a bit of a beating the last couple of weeks … and the flood gates seemed to open up there again in losing Brayden early on. Our defensive line was kind of depleted already, and that’s the one place we don’t really have the depth to replace those injuries,” Penrod said. “You start throwing two-way guys into it and mixing up rotations, and it just starts becoming frustrating because you don’t have your normal guys out there. That’s football though … and the cards just weren’t in our favor tonight.”
Shoemaker produced his second rushing touchdown of the night after breaking free and covering 72 yards to paydirt with 6:07 left in the second canto, making it an 18-0 advantage.
Trailing by three scores, the Blue Devils were forced to look downfield a bit more offensively — which ultimately led to trouble.
Facing a first-and-10, Vanco had a pass picked off by Shoemaker at midfield and returned to the house with 4:24 left in the half. Shoemaker also ran in the 2-point conversion for a 26-point advantage.
Gallia Academy’s next drive also ended with an interception, but the guests made a successful goalline stand to get the ball back after facing a second-and-goal at the two.
The Blue Devils ultimately punted the ball away, but the Tigers hit a 43-yard pass from Shanks to Futhey — putting the ball at the GAHS one with one second left.
Shoemaker plunged in on the final play of the first half and Diener tacked on the PAT kick, making it 33-0 entering the intermission.
Waverly outgained the guests by a 348-264 margin in total yards of offense, including a 182-67 edge in rushing yards. WHS claimed a 16-14 lead in first downs and was also flagged three times for 20 yards.
Junior Cameron Webb forced and recovered a fumble early in the fourth quarter for Gallia Academy’s lone takeaway of the night.
Armstrong — who hadn’t played since getting hurt in Week 7 against Coal Grove — led the Blue Devils with 73 rushing yards on 13 carries, followed by Michael Beasy with 20 yards on 10 attempts. Briar Williams also had five yards on three totes.
Vanco — who was sacked three times for minus-31 yards — completed 14-of-27 passes for 197 yards, including a quartet of interceptions.
Williams hauled in a team-best seven catches for 106 yards, while Cade Roberts had five catches for 34 yards. Beasy and Ryan Donovsky had one grab apiece for 23 and 34 yards, respectively.
Shanks completed 12-of-18 passes for 166 yards and a score for Waverly. Futhey led the host wideouts with four catches for 89 yards, while Penn Morrison hauled in three passes for 48 yards.
Penrod spoke very highly of his departing upperclassmen, but he also had more than enough reason to pass along such accolades for the likes of Ben Cox, Ryan Donovsky, Evan Rodgers, Cade Roberts, Andrew Toler, Cole Rose, Trent Meadows, Mason Angel and Zac Canaday.
After all, these nine seniors are leaving with a 24-18 overall mark during their four-year high school careers — the first senior class at GAHS to have an overall winning record in five years.
“It’s a special group because these guys have gone from one win as freshmen to contributing to an OVC championship and a pair of playoff runs. That’s probably more than they expected four years ago, and they’ve played a big part in getting this thing turned around,” Penrod said. “They’ve earned absolutely everything that they have received during their careers as Blue Devils, so they should definitely hold their heads high in leaving here tonight.”
The Blue Devils are now 6-12 all-time in playoff games. Gallia Academy was also 6-1 in OVC play this past fall, good enough for second place.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.