By David Fong
SIDNEY — It’s almost become a yearly tradition for the Lehman football team.
Start off the season with a loss to a perennial playoff team, then go on an incredible run that ends deep in the postseason.
Such as the case for the Lehman football team again during the 2017 season, as the Cavaliers dropped the season opener — a 27-21 overtime loss to Division VI playoff qualifier Fort Recovery — then went on an incredible 10-game winning streak in which the Cavalier offense averaged an astounding 53.4 points per game.
It was the fifth year in a row the Cavaliers lost the season opener, then still came back to make the playoffs. The previous four years, Lehman actually lost its first two games, but still ended up making the postseason. Lehman has not won a season opener since 2002 — but it has rarely affected the rest of its season in the 16 years since then.
Following the loss to Fort Recovery, the Cavaliers rebounded with a 31-14 win over Miami East, handing the Vikings their only regular season loss of the season. The Cavaliers jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but Miami East came back to tie the score at the end of the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, Lehman quarterback Elliott Gilardi threw a touchdown pass to Kameron Lee and scored his second rushing touchdown of the night to help the Cavaliers pull away.
The following week, Lehman blasted Graham 51-34. It would be the first of six weeks in a row in which the Cavaliers would score 50 or more points in a game. Incredibly, Lehman actually trailed 21-10 at halftime, but came storming back, piling up 361 rushing yards on 36 carries.
Owen Smith finished with 27 carries for 217 yards, while Gilardi carried the ball 16 times for 140 yards, while also completing 7 of 14 passes for 83 yards.
That kicked off a string of blowout victories that saw Lehman beat Ridgemont 62-8, Elgin 55-8, Waynesfield-Goshen 77-14 and Upper Scioto Valley 55-0. With the exception of Elgin, which would finish the season 7-3, all of those teams would end the season with losing records.
It appeared Lehman would get a test the final two weeks of the season as the Cavaliers faced Perry and Riverside — two teams that would qualify for the playoffs — in Weeks 9 and 10.
That didn’t turn out to be the case, however.
Against Riverside, Smith — who had just 49 rushing yards in the first half — finished the game with 214 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the 49-13 victory. Gilardi had 10 carries for 100 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to throwing for two touchdowns.
The following week against Riverside, Lehman closed out the regular season with a 45-14 win over Riverside. Gilardi rushed for 176 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries and completed 4-of-10 passes for 39 yards, including a touchdown pass to Lee. Smith ran for 127 yards and two touchdowns for Lehman on 12 carries and also had a 46-yard punt return. Lee had three receptions of 35 yards.
That win earned Lehman the outright Northwest Central Conference championship and a trip to the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.
In the Division VII regional quarterfinals, Lehman drew a rematch with Lima Perry — and the result was essentially the same as the first meeting, as Lehman won 46-6. Smith finished with 15 carries for 181 yards, while Gilardi completed 8 of 10 passes for 76 yards.
The win put Lehman in the Division VII regional semifinals against Delphos St. John’s. The Blue Jays found a way to do something no other team had been able to do all season — slow down the Cavaliers’ high-powered offense. Lehman was held to its lowest point total since the season opener, falling 14-7 to bring an end to the season.
Smith was named the NWCC Player of the Year. Gilardi, Lee, center Collin Haller, guard Seth Sargent and kicker Michael Denning were named first team all-NWCC on offense, while defensive lineman Michael Bunker, linebacker Drew Barhorst and defensive back Brandon Barhorst were named first team on defense.
Smith, a senior, was also on first team on offense as a running back and on defense as a defensive back. Smith rushed for 1,727 yards and 21 touchdowns on 152 carries. He also caught 10 passes for 154 and two touchdowns. Smith finishes his career with 2,627 career rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns.
Gilardi threw for 1,440 yards and 24 touchdowns and also rushed for 950 yards and 17 touchdowns. Gilardi, a junior, has 2,758 career passing yards and 1,527 rushing yards.
Lee led the NWCC with 516 receiving yards and seven touchdown receptions. Bunker led the NWCC with 13 sacks, while Brandon Barhorst had 54 total tackles with one interception and one fumble recovery. Drew Barhorst had 68 total tackles, two sacks and one interception.
Denning completed 69-of-72 extra-point attempts and made 4-of-6 field goals. He also averaged 48.6 yards per kickoff.
Gilardi was named the Division VII All-Southwest District Offensive Player of the Year, while Bunker was named the Defensive Player of the Year. Smith, Lee, Haller and Seth Sargent, Denning, Drew Barhorst and Brandon Barhorst were also first team.
Gilardi and Bunker earned first-team All-Ohio honors, while Smith and Denning were second team and Lee and Haller were third team.
Contact David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong