Gridiron programs from Clay Lima Senior are moving in opposite directions.
Clay, after starting 2-1, has lost three straight games, all of which they held the lead in at some point.
The Eagles, with a veteran set of talented skill players, had defending state runner-up Whitmer on the ropes, leading 28-20, until the Panthers scored and connected on a two-point conversion with two seconds remaining, Then, the Panthers won in overtime. That has been the typical case at Clay — not finishing.
Lima Senior, meanwhile, has rebounded from an 0-10 record last year to go 3-3 and 2-1 in the TRAC while making a name for itself in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference with its high-powered offense. Clay and Lima meet on Ted Federici Field, Clay Memorial Stadium, this Friday.
In their first two years in the TRAC, the Spartans struggled to a 1-19 record and 1-13 mark in the conference. This year, however, under first-year coach Mike Fell, Lima has impressed against top competition from the TRAC, a league that sent two teams to big school state championship games last year. In the Spartan’s three league games, they defeated Fremont Ross 13-12, Findlay 59-40, and scored nine touchdowns in their 72-61 loss to St. Francis DeSales.
The Lima offense is averaging 39.7 points per game and has scored at least 42 points in four of its games this season. In their win over the Trojans last week, quarterback Justice Graham completed 24-of-40 passes for 348 yards and five touchdowns and running back Juniel Liles rushed 24 times for 210 yards and three touchdowns.
The Spartan’s defense, however, has struggled allowing 40.8 points, which might be something the Eagles can exploit.
Fell has been instrumental in helping to turn things around at his alma mater. A 1979 graduate of Lima Senior, Fell previously coached at Ada, Celina and Columbus Grove, going a combined 169-83 along the way. Most recently, he took Ada to the playoffs in each of his seven years, going 69-18 with the Bulldogs.
Clay, at 2-4 and 0-3 in the TRAC, could easily be 5-1 and 3-0, if they could finish. The Eagles' record is rather deceiving. They held leads late in each of their last two games, losses to St. John's, 37-28, and Whitmer, 34-28, and stormed out to a 13-point lead against Findlay before allowing 34 unanswered points and losing 41-20. It’s a sign that the Clay program is heading the right direction under a new coach, but just needs to get over the top.
“We could be 5-1 if we had finished some plays,” Clay coach Mike Lee said. “We were up 20-7 against Findlay and had the lead in the fourth quarter of the last two games. In the last two games, we played much better but we have to improve in a number of ways. It's all part of the growing process.”
Quarterback Josh Pennington has been instrumental in leading a Clay offense that has averaged 27.3 points. Against Findlay, quarterback Josh Pennington combined for 327 yards of total offense and three touchdowns and then threw for 133 yards and two scores against Whitmer. He was instrumental in leading the Eagles to victories over Northview, 28-3, and Waite, 47-21).
Pennington's primary receivers have been Kyle Row, Anthony Ramirez, and Jay Smith. Running back Ryan Fournier has helped to pace the rushing attack, and all four have demonstrated their athleticism can fill a highlight reel, especially Pennington, who has had to adapt this year.
“He's doing a very nice job in the first year of the new offense,” Lee said. “We're teaching him a lot of things and he's taking it all in.”
Despite their struggles, the Eagles, who faced Fremont Ross last Friday night, have a legitimate shot at winning all of their remaining games and finishing the season out on a high note — if you go by what they’ve done in their first three TRAC games.
Lee moved back to Ohio to take the Clay job after serving as an offensive assistant at Lake Wales High School in Florida. He was an assistant at Fostoria St. Wendelin before taking the reins at Woodmore in the 1990s, where he led the Wildcats to four playoff appearances and three league titles in six seasons. Lee also had success coaching softball programs at St. Wendelin, Woodmore, and Fostoria, where he also served as an assistant football coach.
He's also had success helping rebuilding programs, but he may not have to do that at Clay. He says all he needs now is to get the Eagles to finish a game on the winning side.
Clay sophomore running back Matt Stencel (45) takes the handoff as 5-foot-11, 240 pound junior Blaze Okey (99) blocks in Clay’s 34-28 overtime loss to the defending Division I state runner-up Whitmer Panthers. Okey had an interception return for a touchdown earlier in the game. ((Press photo by Jeff Smith/www.smith6312.smugmug.com)
Clay junior Ryan Fournier looks for running room. (Press photo by Jeff Smith/www.smith6312.smugmug.com)