SPRINGFIELD >> The scoreboard wound up reading like a blowout, but Friday’s Central League meeting between Springfield and Strath Haven was anything but.
The Cougars, clinging to a one-touchdown lead to begin the fourth quarter, dominated the final period and ran away with a 41-13 victory to advance to 4-0 and 3-0 in league play. Ja’Den McKenzie rushed for 150 yards and turned the tide with a 73-yard fumble return during the decisive frame.
He added a 30-yard scoring run to cap the game. But it was his opportunistic defensive play — Springfield was up by 14 points with 10 minutes to go and Strath Haven was driving — that allowed the hosts to finally exhale.
“I was coming in (to) pursue it,” McKenzie explained. “Next thing I know, I saw the ball fly up in the air. I had to grab it and just take off to the house.”
Pat Clemens forced the fumble, popping the ball loose from Sean Daly, who otherwise ran spectacularly for 114 yards. The Wing-T caused all kinds of problems for Springfield, which yielded 150 yards on the ground.
Strath Haven (2-2, 2-1) was without top back Zack Hussein, but it didn’t waver. Daly ran effectively, as did Nick O’Connor. Jake Fisher passed for 95 yards. The Panthers impressed.
“That’s what they look like when they’re missing a guy?” Springfield coach Chris Britton said. “They’re a good offense, they’ve always been a good offense. And we have some stuff to clean up.”
As the game wore on and the yards piled up, Springfield grew frustrated. It was ahead 20-0 before a 14-play, 73-yard drive was capped by Daly’s four-yard burst late in the first half. Strath Haven took nearly nine minutes off the clock to begin the second half, running 15 plays to cover 72 yards and scoring on Fisher’s six-yard pass to Dan Reeves. On fourth-and-goal, no less.
It was suddenly 20-13. What else did Strath Haven coach Kevin Clancy have up his sleeve?
“There’s a reason why he has 250 wins,” Britton said.
That score woke Springfield up. It answered with an effective drive, capped by Jake Psenicska’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Liam DiFonzo right up the seam. The Panthers then gained 33 quick yards, but that’s when McKenzie found the football floating in midair. He put the jets on, and that was that.
A gritty Strath Haven effort wasn’t going to be enough.
“It took us until the second quarter to get into it, put ourselves behind the eight-ball,” Clancy said. “I felt like the momentum in the third quarter was going our direction, then the turnover hurts.”
McKenzie opened the scoring with a 19-yard run. After a punt, Psenciska hit Frank Durham Jr. for an 11-yard strike late in the first quarter. McKenzie hit from 30 yards out, untouched, early in the second quarter to make it 20-0 and start what looked to be like a blowout.
But during those first two unsuccessful Strath Haven possessions, it moved the football. A penalty halted the first, a fumble the second. Britton knew his defense was not performing up to its capabilities. Springfield learned lessons Friday, but it learned them in a victory.
This, Britton explained, will be easier to digest.
“I’m happy we got the win, but I’m happy we got some stuff to look at,” he said. “And they showed it to us. So we have some things we have to work on.”