BELLEFONTAINE – In the end, it came down to a yard here, or two there.
Top-seeded Marion Local rallied to defeat second-seeded Mechanicsburg, 9-7, in a defensive dogfight Saturday night to claim the Division VI, Region 22 football championship.
“That’s what a state championship football game looks like,” MHS Coach Kurt Forrest said. “That’s what the highest level of small school football in Ohio looks like.”
Marion Local (12-1) started the game by driving inside Mechanicsburg’s 10-yard line, but the Indians recovered a fumble and took away potential points from the Flyers.
The teams exchanged punts before the Indians (12-1) were able to draw first blood, with Kaleb Romero getting into the end zone on the right side for a 7-yard touchdown that capped off a long drive with 3:06 left in the first half.
The Flyers answered with a big run from Aaron Nietfield that set up a touchdown on a quarterback sneak a few plays later, putting an end to a tense series near the goal line. Nietfield finished the game with 32 carries for 206 yards.
The ensuing extra point was snapped, perhaps unintentionally, directly at the kicker, who rolled out and looked for a receiver. But Romero jumped in front of the pass and knocked it away to prevent the conversion and preserve a 7-6 lead at halftime.
The score would remain that way for a while, with each team struggling to move the ball in chunks against its opponent.
Mechanicsburg threatened once more in the third quarter, facing fourth-and-one from the Marion Local 2-yard line. A Romero run up the middle was thwarted and the Indians turned the ball over on downs. Then a big run flipped field position for the Flyers before the fourth quarter started.
“When you’re playing state championship level football, you have to take advantage of every opportunity. And there’s a couple we came up short on,” Forrest said. “It wasn’t lack of effort or lack of physicality. Obviously, we’re playing a heck of a football team.”
Marion Local got all the way into the red zone before coughing up the ball for a second time.
Just a few minutes later, with possession again in the hands of Marion Local, the Flyers were back inside the Mechanicsburg 10-yard line and had a fresh set of downs after picking up fourth-and-one.
The Indians stood strong at the one-yard line and forced a field goal that put the Flyers in front 9-7 with less than five minutes to go.
Facing 80 yards of turf ahead, Romero and Co. were forced into a long third down and then an even longer fourth down as the aggressive Flyers’ defense got to the ball carrier in the backfield.
Forced to go for it on fourth-and-26 with a couple of minutes remaining, Romero threw up a prayer that was knocked down and allowed the four-time defending state champs to run out the clock.
Romero finished with 132 yards on 30 carries with the touchdown.
Marion Local out-gained Mechanicsburg, 281-163.
Reach Justin Miller at 652-1331 (ext. 1776) or on Twitter @UDC_Miller.