by Frank AcetO
Associate Sports Editor
Tallmadge — They had just won their third straight Suburban League title and they were the No. 1 seed heading into their first playoff game.
Sadly for the Blue Devils, none of those things mattered Nov. 2.
The top-seeded Tallmadge football team lost a shocking 26-23 decision to eighth-seeded Chagrin Falls Kenston in a Division II, Region 5 quarterfinal game at Rossiaky Stadium.
The Blue Devils finished 8-3 in 2012.
With the win, Kenston improved to 7-4.
The Bombers are the second consecutive Chagrin Valley Conference Chagrin Division team to knock Tallmadge out of the Divisiion II playoffs.
Last year, the Blue Devils lost a 34-14 decision to Aurora in the Region 2 semifinals.
There was no regional semifinal appearance this year.
“It hurts, especially for the seniors,” said Tallmadge head coach Joe Vassalotti. “That’s the thing about the playoffs. It all can come to a sudden end.”
It did, thanks mainly to 6-foot-3 Kenston senior quarterback Darryl Richards.
The dual-threat signal caller ran for three touchdowns and passed for another for Kenston, which took the lead for good late in the second quarter. Richards ran for 201 yards on 17 carries and passed for 75 yards.
“Darryl did what we expect him to do,” Bombers head coach Jeff Grubich said. “No matter where we go, we expect to win.”
The Blue Devils certainly didn’t go away without a fight.
Tallmadge went 80 yards in a little more than two minutes to cut Kenston’s lead to 26-23 with 1 minute, 57 seconds left in the game.
Despite a sack that put them at their own eight, the Blue Devils took advantage of two pass-interference penalties to get into scoring position.
Tallmadge reached the end zone when senior quarterback Anthony Gotto completed a nine-yard TD pass to senior wide receiver Bryon Cook. Senior kicker Kody Edwards added the extra point.
The Blue Devils’ defense forced the Bombers to go three and out and Tallmadge got the ball back on its own 15 with a little more than 90 seconds left.
The Blue Devils made it all the way to Kenston’s 25, but the drive and the game ended when Gotto’s pass to the end zone was incomplete on fourth down.
In the end, the turnovers sealed Tallmadge’s fate.
The Blue Devils lost four fumbles, while the Bombers lost the ball just once.
“That has been a problem in every game we’ve lost,” Vassalotti said. “You’re not going to win when you lose the turnover ratio 4-1.”
The most costly turnover for Tallmadge took place late in the third quarter.
Trailing 19-16, the Blue Devils got to Kenston’s two after a 19-yard run down the sideline by senior running back Johnny Linn.
And then disaster struck.
Facing first and goal, Tallmadge fumbled and the Bombers recovered the loose pigskin at their own three.
Nearly six minutes later, Kenston went all the way down the field to take a 26-16 advantage. Richards capped off the drive with a 16-yard run. Senior kicker TJ Kestranek added the extra point.
“Our offense made some big plays and our defense made some big stops,” Grubich said.
Gotto, who concluded a four-year run as the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback, completed 19-of-33 passes for 364 yards and two TDs. His other scoring throw was a 65-yard TD to senior wide receiver Zach Cleary. Gotto, despite being hindered by cramps late in the game, also rushed for 79 yards on 11 carries.
Clark, who gave Tallmadge a 10-7 lead with a 34-yard TD run in the second quarter, finished with 77 yards on 10 carries. Linn added 73 yards on eight carries. The Blue Devils rushed for a total of 260 yards. Edwards added a 27-yard field goal for Tallmadge.
Richards’ 61-yard TD pass to senior wide receiver Joe Tomcufcik gave the Bombers a 12-10 advantage. Richards also had scoring rushes of 74 and 10, respectively.
Senior linebacker Logan Banks led Tallmadge’s defense with 16 tackles, including five for a loss, one sack and one fumble recovery. Senior defensive lineman Scott Noel added 11 tackles, including two for a loss, and two sacks.
A total of 23 seniors played their final game for the Blue Devils.
“It’s difficult now, but we’ll remember all the good times,” Vassalotti said. “This senior group won three outright league titles and made the playoffs three times. No senior group has done that before.”