GAHANNA — Massillon faced an early deficit. It faced a second-half comeback. It faced injury to one of its best players.
Now, the Tigers will face three-time state champion Archbishop Hoban for the Division II state championship at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
Massillon earned its first trip to the title game since 2005 thanks to a 41-20 victory over Winton Woods on Friday night at Gahanna's Wilbur C. Strait Stadium. It is the Tigers' fourth title-game appearance, and first in Division II.
"I'm really proud of our guys," said Massillon coach Nate Moore, whose team scored 26 consecutive points in the second and third quarters to rally from a 10-0 deficit and improve to 14-0 and set a school record for wins in a season. "They played a whale of a ballgame against a great football team. I'm really proud of them."
A year ago, Winton Woods overcame a 21-0 Massillon lead in the first half and scored the final 56 points to win going away. A year later, the Warriors were the ones who were in possession of the early lead, only to see the Tigers roar back.
"We've been waiting for them all season," said cornerback Max Turner, whose 38-yard interception return for a touchdown with 21 seconds left in the first half capped a 19-0 second-quarter run.
That didn't mean Massillon wasn't in for a little bit of early adversity.
Winton Woods led 10-0 after the first quarter thanks to a 36-yard field goal by Yeri Velasquez and a 3-yard touchdown run by Miyan Williams. The Tigers had just two first downs and 39 total yards of offense in that same time.
Jamir Thomas' 15-yard touchdown run two minutes into the second quarter made it 10-7. He added a 1-yard run with 40 seconds left in the half to give the Tigers the lead for good at 13-10.
Thomas, who left the game late in the third quarter with an injury, ran for 83 yards on 12 carries.
Massillon turned momentum totally on its side just 19 seconds later, when Turner's interception return for a touchdown made it 19-10 at halftime. The lead grew to 26-10 less than a minute into the third quarter when Aidan Longwell hit Tre'Von Morgan for a 58-yard touchdown.
Longwell finished 14-of-27 for 210 yards with one touchdown and one interception. That interception, with Massillon leading 26-13 in the third quarter, was the only crack Winton Woods could find to attempt to get back in the game.
After the interception, the Warriors faced a 3rd-and-29 from their own 24. MiChale Wingfield hit Williams on a screen pass for 75 yard to the Massillon 1.
On the next play, Williams scored his second touchdown of the night to make it 26-20. Williams finished with 82 rushing yards on 20 carries.
With Thomas sidelined for the final quarter, the ball went to junior Zion Phifer. Phifer didn't disappoint.
"I did it for the seniors," said Phifer, who gained 76 of his 82 yards on 15 fourth-quarter carries. "When Jamir went down, we had no one else to come up but me. So I did it for me team."
Phifer's 13-yard run on the second play of the fourth quarter gave Massillon a 34-20 lead after Longwell hit Dean Clark for a 2-point conversion. His 1-yard run with 1:34 remaining in the game gave the Tigers a 41-20 lead.