COLUMBUS — All season long, Athens hoped for a chance to play in the playoffs. It took a near-perfect record, a conference championship and a little bit of luck, but the Bulldogs got their wish.
But they did not get the ending they hoped for.
Athens’ storybook season came to an end Friday night at Jack Ryan Stadium courtesy of a 51-14 blowout from Bishop Hartley.
Despite the lopsided defeat, Athens hung with the two-time state champion for as long as it could before superior talent and gut-wrenching mistakes was too much to overcome. It was a tough way to go out for a team desperate to prove it could play with the best in the state.
“I’ll never forget this season, or what we accomplished” senior running back Evan Adams said.
Athens (9-2, 6-0 Tri-Valley Conference) hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2014, and it showed early. After forcing a three and out, Joey Moore muffed the ensuing punt and the Hawks made the Bulldogs pay. The next play, Hartley wideout Philip Cole ran up the sideline for a 31-yard touchdown.
The Bulldogs were bullied into a three-and-out on their next possession. Hartley widened its lead to 14 on the ensuing drive after an 8-yard touchdown run from Jalan January.
The Bulldogs were trailing by 14 on the road with zero momentum. It was time to respond, and the Bulldogs did.
On the next drive, quarterback Clay Davis found Nate Trainer streaking across the field and hit him in stride for a 30-yard touchdown.
Hartley bumped its lead back to 14 two plays later when quarterback Miles Fleming hit Cole for an 84-yard touchdown. Cole made sure Athens never had a chance to catch him by sprinting into the end zone after burning the safety and cornerback.
Athens kept itself in the game by working its passing attack. On the next drive, Davis hit a wide open Logan Maxfield for a 17-yard touchdown. It was obvious early that despite being overmatched, Athens wasn’t going away.
“I think a lot of people take us for granted,” Maxfield said. “If they saw how hard we work they would know we can compete with anyone.”
The Bulldogs were able keep the Hawks out of the end zone, but not off the scoreboard. Hartley converted on a 24-yard field goal attempt and led by 10 with four minutes left until halftime.
Athens was gifted with momentum, knowing that a touchdown before halftime would mean it would only trail by three with the ball to start the second half.
But that plan went haywire a few plays later.
With the ball deep in Hawks territory, Davis — who was picking Hartley apart — was intercepted on a pass that bounced off Maxfield’s hands into the palms of Hartley’s Ryan Heuser.
The play was the one of the only sour ones for Davis, who went 9-for-22 with 114 yards and two touchdowns.
Fleming quickly took the Hawks down the field and used his legs to finish the drive, scampering into the end zone from 38 yards out.
What could have been a three-point deficit was now 17 as Athens trailed 31-14 at halftime.
“It’s always a few plays that can totally change the outcome of a ballgame,” coach Ryan Adams said.
Athens came out of the locker room with an inability to move the ball. The Hawks defense made Athens one dimensional, taking away the Bulldogs’ run game. The Bulldogs only total 66 rushing yards on 19 attempts.
Hartley was able to do whatever it wanted with the football, totaling seven touchdowns — six rushing — with 480 yards of total offense. And it wasn’t just one player who dominated. Five different Hawks scored touchdowns.
Athens’ season and eight-game winning streak comes to an end with a record of •9-2. The Bulldogs season saw its first •TVC-Ohio championship and playoff berth since •2014.
The Bulldogs credit the success they achieved this season to their senior leadership. Adams, Davis, Maxfield and the other 16 seniors worked for and accomplished nearly every goal they set.
And as they left the field for the final time their bond was as strong as ever.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without them,” Maxfield said.