Avon quarterback Ryan Maloy throws a pass to Chris Mullins in the second quarter against Highland. Aaron Josefczyk/Chronicle Photo
STRONGSVILLE — When word spread that Avon starting running back Tony Eberhardt had been sidelined by a case of mononucleosis, it was unclear how badly the Eagles’ dynamic offense would be affected by the loss.
The Eagles used a trio of runners — juniors Aaron Endrizal and Mark Steinmetz, and sophomore Nick Perusek — and junior quarterback Ryan Maloy chipped in to help Avon rally for a 28-10 victory over Medina Highland and a trip to the Division II regional final.
“Tony Eberhardt is probably playing his best football, so we miss him,” Avon coach Mike Elder said. “Today we lost (senior linebacker) Kyle Kudla, who is another one of our captains, and we’re without (senior receiver) Vlasi Pappas … I don’t think people understand the resilience of this group. We’re playing without four of our best football players and still winning football games. So I’m just proud of the grit and the determination of these kids, and that’s kind of the way we win — we grind it out and our kids keep fighting, and that’s what they did tonight.”
The offense wasn’t clicking during the first half, when Highland came up with stop after stop and a costly penalty erased a Maloy touchdown pass to David Orlando.
“In that first half, we were moving the ball up and down the field, and you’re feeling disappointed when you have a touchdown called back and you stall out there, so at halftime, 10-7, I thought we did some really good things but we were losing the football game,” Elder said.
Steinmetz scored the first-half touchdown on a 1-yard run, then Perusek gave the Eagles (12-0) the lead with a 5-yard run in the third quarter.
While the Eagles began chipping away at the Hornets defense with an assortment of runs, Maloy began finding his favorite target — senior receiver Chris Mullins, who finished with eight catches for 101 yards — to put Highland on its heels.
“In the first half we didn’t really take too many shots, and when we did it was kind of like an all-or-nothing play,” Maloy said. “My coaches called the plays, and I could throw it deep or I could check it down, so I had many options because of the play-calling.
“Our passing game’s always been pretty good, and we were handing the ball off a lot and they were up with their linebackers, so that’s when we decided we could take some shots on them and loosen their defense up. They didn’t know what to expect from us.”
The Eagles capped a fourth-quarter drive with Perusek’s second touchdown. The two-score performance was particularly rewarding as Perusek returned to the lineup Friday night after missing five weeks with a fractured hip.
“We shifted our linemen (in the second half) so there was a big cutback, that opened up a lot,” he said. “It’s awesome. Just the moment of running into the end zone, giving each other chest bumps … it’s indescribable.”
While the offense was figuring out how to move the ball effectively, the Avon defense was also coming up big in the second half — including keeping Highland off the scoreboard when Elder decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 and the Eagles came up short deep in their own territory.
“They bailed me out,” Elder said. “I’m aggressive. I’ve done that a million times. I called it because I had confidence in our offense and I also have confidence in our defense if we didn’t (convert the first down).”
The victory puts Avon in the regional final for the sixth time, and gives the top-seeded Eagles a shot at advancing to their third state tournament. They will face No. 3 seed Olmsted Falls, who they defeated 31-7 in Week 2, in the Region 6 final.
“It’s really special,” Maloy said of the current playoff run. “You can never take it for granted, because last year after Week 1 (an upset loss to No. 8 seed Avon Lake), I was at my house crying. So I’ll never take it for granted because I know how terrible it feels to lose. This is a special team and I’m just happy to be playing still.”
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or email@example.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him @ShaunBennettct on Twitter.
Avon 28, Highland 10
Highland 7 3 0 0 —10
Avon 7 0 7 14 —28
H—Jake Rogers 2 run (Evan Shelton kick)
A—Mark Steinmetz 1 run (Dave Orlando kick)
H—FG Shelton 21
A—Nick Perusek 5 run (Orlando kick)
A—Perusek 2 run (Orlando kick)
A—Ryan Maloy 5 run (Orlando kick)
First downs 15 17
— by rushing 5 6
— by passing 8 10
— by penalty 2 1
Yards rushing 100 143
Yards passing 164 186
Total offense 264 329
Passes att./comp. 19/11 26/19
Intercepted by 0 1
Fumbles/lost 2/1 0/0
Penalties/yards 5/49 6/65
RUSHING—(H) Jake Rogers 23-81, Evan Kasulones 4-19, Matthew Earnest 8-0. (A) Nick Perusek 11-47, Aaron Endrizal 12-41, Ryan Maloy 10-39, Mark Steinmetz 4-16, David Orlando 1-0.
PASSING—(H) Matthew Earnest 11-19-164-0-1. (A) Ryan Maloy 19-26-186-0-0.
RECEIVING—(H) Ryan Frederick 4-92, Jake Rogers 3-50, Evan Kasulones 2-17, Jake Sir Louis 2-5. (A) Chris Mullins 8-101, David Orlando 6-65, Tommy Purcell 2-15, Matt Kennedy 2-3, Timothy Paing 1-2.