By Bryant Billing
CANTON — The comeback of the Versailles football program is complete.
Versailles held on to beat Kirtland 20-16 in the Division V state championship game on Saturday night at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
It’s the seventh state championship in program history, but it’s the first since 2003. The Tigers (15-1) hadn’t been to a title game since 2004 — and had struggled for much of the 17 years since.
But third-year head coach Ryan Jones has presided over a quick turnaround. Versailles finished 2-8 in 2018 before Jones took over, 3-7 in Jones’ first year in 2019 and 5-3 last season.
“These players, these seniors, have (led this turnaround),” Jones said. “When I came in, they were sophomores. They could have said, ‘Who is this little guy coming in here from Troy Christian? We don’t want any part of this.’ But they embraced it, bought into the program and gave every ounce of effort they had.
“They put the work in in the weight room and on the field and in the classroom. They’re just tremendous young men, and they’ve made me be a better man and a better coach just being around them.”
Versailles hung on in the fourth quarter.
After a Versailles three-and-out early in the fourth quarter, Kirtland quickly drove and scored when Gage Sullivan ran in from 39 yards out with 9:03 left in the fourth to cut the gap to 20-10.
After the teams traded possessions, Kirtland came up with another score in the final minute.
The Hornets drove 65 yards on six plays in a little more than a minute and scored when Mason Rus ran in from 4 yards out with 37 seconds left.
But Connor Stonebraker blocked the extra-point attempt, and Versailles easily recovered an onside kick attempt to secure the win.
Then the players went wild on the field, as did the thousands of fans clad in black and orange in the bleachers.
“Just a tremendous accomplishment for our players,” Jones said. “Couldn’t be more proud of these guys for the hard work that they’ve put in. They set their mind to do this. They found that the price of success is high, and they were willing to pay it. It started in June, and they approached every day with the same attitude, to get better.
“…We never once said our goal is to win a state championship. We never talked about it. Our goal was to focus on the system that we do and how we approach things. We focus on getting better every day, one rep at a time.”
The Tigers will lose 18 seniors to graduation, including senior quarterback Carson Bey, who completed 8-of-12 passes for 129 yards with one TD and ran for 99 yards and one TD on 27 carries.
“Coming into the year, we wanted to make it farther than last year (a 31-28 regional final loss to Roger Bacon). We had our eyes on a state championship,” Bey said. “But we always preach process over product. There’s nothing more we could do than work hard every day to reach the goal we did today.”
Jack Osborne ran for 50 yards and one TD on 22 carries. Noah McEldowney caught four passes for 68 yards.
Both squads finished with 263 yards of offense.
Versailles scored on the first drive of the game. The Tigers received the opening kickoff and drove 63 yards on 10 plays to take a 6-0 lead after a missed extra point. Bey scored on a 15-yard run with 6:24 left to cap off the drive.
Kirtland responded on the next drive. The Hornets drove 43 yards on nine plays and scored when Johnny Raguz kicked a 38-yard field goal with 2:52 left in the first.
But Versailles scored on its next drive possession. The Tigers drove 65 yards on 10 plays and scored when Bey threw a 24-yard TD pass to Michael Osborne on the visitor’s sideline, which Osborne caught under pressure with 9:25 left in the second to push the lead to 13-3.
Both squads had one turnover late in the second, but neither capitalized. Versailles drove to Kirtland’s 20 in the final seconds of the quarter but couldn’t score.
Kirtland went three-and-out to start the third quarter, and Versailles then went on a 13-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Jack Osborne with 3:22 left. Chase McEldowney kicked the extra point to push the lead to 20-3.
It was the second state title earned by Midwest Athletic Conference team on Saturday. Marion Local beat Newark Catholic 42-7 in the D-VII state title game on Saturday morning. It’s the program’s 12th state championship. Coldwater lost 26-14 to Carey in the D-VI state title game on Saturday afternoon.
Versailles and Marion Local’s win pushes the number of football titles won by MAC schools to 39 and the number of state titles in all sports to 145.
“You’ve got difficult games week in and week out in the MAC,” Jones said. “You can lose any week. You’ve got to be consistent, and you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game every week, because anybody can knock you off.”
Kirtland (14-1) had won 55 consecutive games before Saturday’s loss, including the D-VI state title game in 2018 and D-V state title game in 2019 and 2020.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.