COVINGTON — After seeing the Buccaneers’ 12-year postseason streak snapped as sophomores in 2017, Covington’s 2019-20 senior class went out on a major high note.
Led by a talented group of 16 seniors, the Covington football team reached the regional championship game for the first time since 2012, putting together an eight-game winning streak and finishing the season 10-3 before falling to Mechanicsburg in the Division VI, Region 24 final.
Seniors Stephen Sporek, Alex Shaffer, Austin Flick, Dalton Weer, Bryce Weer, Josh Latimer, Andrew Cates, Cade Schmelzer, Kadin Presser, Brayden Wiggins, Kleyton Maschino, Seth Iddings, Teague Deaton, Jesse Fisher, Nate Alexander and Dylan Staudt lost five of their first seven games as sophomores during the 2017 season — which the Buccs capped off with a 5-5 record. After those first seven games, though, those same seniors won 21 of their final 28 games, including beginning a new postseason streak with two straight appearances.
“It has been an amazing ride,” Covington coach Ty Cates said after the regional final. “I have been here four years, so this is the first group I have coach for four years. I am really going to miss getting to coach these guys every day in practice.”
Going into the season, the Buccs knew they had a chance for a special year — they just didn’t know how special it would end up being.
“Expectations are high. But, they are always going to be high in Covington. We do have big expectations this year,” Cates said before Week 1.
The Buccs kicked off the season with some payback. After back-to-back season-opening losses to St. Henry, Covington routed the Redskins 35-6. Presser blocked an early field goal try and Duncan Cooper returned it 85 yards for a touchdown, and then Presser threw a big block on a kickoff return in the third quarter that Shaffer returned 80 yards for a score that gave the Buccs the momentum they needed to close out the game.
And while Week 2’s 35-25 loss to Minster — which eventually reached the playoffs and finished the year 9-2 — may have looked like a stumble on paper, it was also something of a wake-up call with a showdown against reigning Cross County Conference champion Fort Loramie looming in Week 4.
“We have a good football team, and we’ll learn from this,” Cates said. “This was a hard-fought game to the finish, but you can’t win against a good team making the mistakes we made tonight. This result won’t define our season.”
And after a 48-0 blowout of Twin Valley South to open CCC play in Week 3, the Buccs traveled to Fort Loramie for what amounted to the CCC title game. Covington was able to take a 14-13 lead early in the fourth quarter as Wiggins forced a fumble and Trentin Alexander returned it for a touchdown with 10:04 to play. The Redskins answered with a quick touchdown drive to take a 19-14 lead with 8:10 left in the game. Covington was knocking on the door in the closing seconds, though, but an incomplete pass as time ran out gave Fort Loramie the victory.
Fort Loramie would go on to finish the season 10-2 and win another CCC title, eventually falling in the regional semifinals to eventual Division VII state champion Marion Local.
And from there, Covington began its own methodical march to the postseason, only allowing a total of 31 points over the next six weeks to finish the regular season 8-2. The Buccs routed Ansonia 48-6, defeated rival Miami East 35-13 and then won back-to-back shutouts, 75-0 over National Trail and 57-0 over Arcanum. A 74-6 romp over Tri-County North and a 47-6 victory at Bethel closed out the regular season in impressive fashion, and Covington earned the No. 4 seed in the D-VI, Region 24 playoffs as a result.
That set up a matchup against No. 5 seed Worthington Christian to open the playoffs at home, and though Covington jumped out to a 27-7 halftime lead, the Warriors cut the lead to six at 27-21 late in the third quarter before Covington quarterback Schmelzer scored on a 4-yard run with 5:58 left in the game to give the Buccs a 33-21 lead. The Warriors scored with 3:43 remaining and then attempted an onside kick, but Covington recovered and drained the rest of the clock to win 33-27 and advance.
That put Covington into the regional semifinals against undefeated and top-seeded Chillicothe Southeastern. And in the end, the Buccs were able to overcome season-ending injuries to Andrew Cates and Wiggins in the first quarter to put away a 36-20 victory. The Buccs were able to contain Panthers quarterback Lane Ruby, who still finished with 149 rushing yards and 107 passing yards.
“I can’t believe we held that offense to that (20 points),” Cates said. “We feel like we are fast on defense and they were just flying to the ball. We were able to keep them behind the sticks, which is what you have to do. It shows shows you what you can do when follow your assignments.”
Following that, the Buccs were matched up against Mechanicsburg in the regional championship game. The Indians — who were seeded No. 6 and finished the season 11-3, losing in the state semifinal game the next week to eventual state champion Anna — took charge early and built a 42-14 lead before the Buccs scored a pair of late touchdowns to make the final score 42-26.
“That just exemplifies what this team is about,” Cates said. “There is no quit in these guys. It would have been easy just to quit in that situation. A lot of teams would have. These guys have overcome so much adversity. I am so proud of these guys.
“This team has overcome so much adversity. What a ride they took us on. They got us to a regional final, I had never been here before. I just love those guys so much.”