SANDUSKY: Unbeaten Toledo Whitmer got its strongest challenge of the season Saturday night at Strobel Field, but the Panthers assumed control after halftime and took a 39-28 victory over Hudson in a Division I regional semifinal.
Senior running back Tre Sterritt paced the Panthers with 196 yards on 25 carries, including two touchdowns, and senior quarterback Nick Holley offset a three-turnover game by rushing for 142 yards on 26 attempts, and completing 7-of-12 passes for 101 yards.
The third-ranked Panthers (12-0), who trailed 14-12 at halftime, imposed their will to start the third quarter, beginning with Devon Miller’s 37-yard kickoff return.
That play sparked a 59-yard touchdown drive capped on a 2-yard run by Me’Gail Frisch with 8:32 left in the third. The Whitmer defense then produced a three-and-out punt from the Explorers (9-3), and the offense went back to work.
The Panthers moved 69 yards on 18 plays and took 7:30 off the clock by the time Frisch scored from a yard out to give Whitmer a 26-14 lead 1:11 into the fourth quarter.
From there, the teams traded touchdowns twice in the final 9:51, and the Panthers had done enough to advance to their third consecutive regional final.
Whitmer will face Massillon (11-1), which beat rival Canton McKinley 28-19 in the other regional semifinal Saturday night. The final will be played at 7 p.m. Saturday at a site to be determined.
Whitmer had some tense moments toward the end, leading just 33-28.
Nick Holley lost a fumble at the Hudson 11 with 2:47 remaining, and needed the Panthers defense to make a stand.
It did, and when Hudson quarterback Mitchell Guadagni’s fourth-down completion to Kennedy left the Explorers inches shy of a first down, Holley and his teammates breathed a sigh of relief.
Hudson coach Ron Wright opted to allow Whitmer to score instead of run out the clock, and Holley went 19 yards for the final margin.
In a wild first half that included six turnovers, two by Whitmer, the Panthers went to the break behind 14-12.
The turnover tone was set from the beginning, as Guadagni lost a fumble on the Explorers’ first play form scrimmage, and Nick Holley threw an interception to Hudson’s John Zuccaro two plays later.
The Explorers struck first, marching 85 yards on six plays, with Guadagni hitting Kennedy on a 28-yard touchdown pass.
Whitmer’s next drive stalled, but the Panthers got the ball back when Explorers running back Ben Gedeon lost a fumble at the end of a 21-yard run.
This time the Panthers went 74 yards on 10 plays. Holley ignited the drive on a 33-yard pass to Michael Dzikowski, and Sterritt capped it on a 3-yard run early in the second quarter.
Michael Baldwin’s point-after kick was blocked, and Hudson remained ahead 7-6.
The Explorers answered with their own 10-play, 63-yard scoring drive, which Gedeon (14 carries, 88 yards) closed on a 1-yard plunge with 7:28 left in the half.
Whitmer responded with a five-play, 71-yard touchdown drive. Holley ran the final 2 yards around left end to pull the Panthers within 14-12 with 4:01 left in the half, and it stayed that way when a trick play on the extra-point try was botched.
Before the break, Guadagni lost his second fumble, and was intercepted by Panthers linebacker Nate Holley. Nick Holley was intercepted for the second time by Zuccaro.
“We just couldn’t find a way to stop the run,” Wright said. “That’s been our Achilles heel all year, at times, being unable to stop the run.”
Whitmer rushed for 371 yards and passed for 101. Hudson rushed for 115 and passed for 304. Guadagni completed 19-of-29 passes for 285 of those yards.