Drew Bittner/Times Bulletin
St. John’s running back Jordan Leininger (25) fights his way through the LCC defensive line during the Blue Jays game against the Thunderbirds on Saturday, August 29, in Lima.
Drew Bittner/Times Bulletin St. John’s running back Jordan Leininger (25) fights his way through the LCC defensive line during the Blue Jays game against the Thunderbirds on Saturday, August 29, in Lima.
BY DREW BITTNER

Times Bulletin Sports Editor

sports@timesbulletin.com

LIMA - St. John's began their defense of last year's Division VI state title with a win. Barely.

The Blue Jays scored a touchdown with less than a minute remaining on the clock to secure a 21-14 victory over Lima Cental Catholic on Saturday night.

From the opening kickoff, it was evident to all the fans that packed Lima Stadium that the contest would provide plenty of excitement. And neither team failed to deliver.

After both squads traded punts on their opening series, St. John's made their second possession count. Senior quarterback Wes Ulm and senior tight end Jay Clark connected for two long passing plays, covering 47 yards, to put St. John's inside the Thunderbirds' ten-yard line.

A few plays later, the Blue Jays put the first points on the scoreboard as junior running back Jordan Leininger scored on a two-yard run. St. John's extra point kick was good, and the Blue Jays led 7-0 with 4:53 remaining in the first quarter.

LCC would eventually answer, as the Thunderbirds also used a pass-heavy drive to set themselves up inside St. John's five-yard line early in the second quarter. Once there, LCC simply pounded the ball up the middle and junior running back Taylor Royster soon found the end zone, scoring on a two-yard run of his own. LCC's extra point tied the game at 7-7 with 9:45 left in the second quarter.

The teams would again trade possessions, as both defenses showed their resolve, until the St. John's special teams unit provided one of their many highlights on the night.

Returner Tyler Bergfeld, a junior, took a punt at St. John's own 38-yard line, and returned it 40 yards to the LCC 22-yard mark, setting up the Blue Jays with great field position.

LCC refused to give in, however, as a sack by senior linebacker Jacob Rigali on a crucial third-down play forced St. John's into a long fourth-and-11.

In between a field goal situation and a punt, the St. John's coaching staff elected to go for it on fourth down. An obvious passing down, Ulm dropped back in the pocket, saw all his receivers covered, and took off for the first-down marker. Ulm found plenty of green in front of him, scrambling his way close to the first-down, and capping off the run by bowling over a LCC defender.

The spot of the ball was too close to call initially, but after an official measurement, St. John's was awarded a first down by just the nose of the football.

LCC also aided the Blue Jays' cause on the ensuing play, as senior defensive back Desmond Kirkman was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the whistle. The penalty put St. John's inside LCC's 10-yard line.

The Blue Jays capitalized a few plays later, as Leininger would again score from two yards out, with only 0:34 seconds remaining in the first half. The extra point kick was good and St. John's took a 14-7 lead into halftime.

Neither team could do much of anything when they returned from the break, with both squads trading a few punts in the third quarter. There were squandered chances on both sides, including the Blue Jays failing to take advantage of another great punt return by Bergfeld, this one for 47 yards. And to compound the Blue Jays' problems, their star back Leininger appeared to be limping off the field after several of the St. John's plays with what St. John's head coach Todd Schulte later revealed to be severe leg cramps.

"Jordan just kept cramping up," said Schulte after the game. "We'd run a play and he'd be down. It's hard to run with both legs cramping up."

The futile offensive display continued early in the fourth quarter, as St. John's failed to convert on a fourth-and-four situation, turning the ball over to LCC on the Thunderbirds' 30-yard line.

It appeared that LCC would again give up the pigskin after St. John's stuffed a few runs up the middle by Royster, but that quickly changed.

The Thunderbirds' sophomore quarterback Tyler O'Connor lofted a deep pass down the left side of the field for Kirkman, who made a seemingly impossible acrobatic catch, and took the ball to the Blue Jays' 19-yard line. The pass was good for 61 yards.

After St. John's stopped two more LCC running plays, O'Connor again went to the air, finding junior Rufus Johnson for a 17-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was good and LCC tied the game 14-14 with only 6:49 remaining on the clock.

Leininger returned to the field on the ensuing kickoff and took the return for 31 yards into LCC territory. The play called back, however, due to holding on the return. Leininger would again limp off the field and would not return.

The Blue Jays may have found a blessing in disguise, though, as senior running back Blake Williams, who hasn't seen much playing time since eighth grade due to injuries, filled in quite nicely in place of Leininger.

Williams peeled off three consecutive runs of 14 yards on the possession, as St. John's slowly drove deep into LCC territory. The Thunderbirds' defense proved tough inside the red zone, however, and the Blue Jays were forced to attempt a 26-yard field goal at the 2:47 mark.

Sophomore Josh Rode's kick sailed wide right and St. John's was held off the board, giving LCC possession of the football.

It was not to be for the Thunderbirds on this night, though. On that ensuing drive, a O'Connor pass was picked off by senior defensive back Justin Backus, who returned the interception into the end zone. The score would be waved off due to a block in the back penalty on the Blue Jays.

It wouldn't take long for St. John's to get those points back.

On the first play of the possession, Ulm gave off to Williams, who scampered up the middle 17 yards for a touchdown with 56 seconds left in the game. St. John's tacked on the extra point and pulled ahead 21-14.

Williams shared his view of that touchdown run after the game.

"I saw a hole and a great block by Mitchell (MacLennan, St. John's fullback)," said the running back. "And I just ran it in. It felt really good."

LCC's Desi Kirkman returned the following Blue Jays kickoff to LCC's 39-yard line, but another O'Connor interception, this time by Bergfeld, sealed the Thunderbirds' fate and gave St. John's a hard-fought 21-14 victory.

After the game, coach Shulte expressed his thoughts on the contest.

"That's the way it's been every year," commented the Blue Jays' head coach. "The difference (between the teams) hasn't been separated by very much. It's a very physical and very hard-hitting game and that's what we expected going in."

When asked about how he would grade his team's overall effort in the opener, Schulte was less than satisfied with the play on the field.

"Missed opportunities," Schulte lamented. "Missed opportunities. Those things will come back to haunt you, so we have got to learn how to take care of drives. When we have somebody backed up into their own end zone, we need to get it in (score a touchdown). We have to find a way. And we'll work very hard on that, I can promise you that."

For St. John's, Ulm completed two of eight passes for 47 yards on the night. Both passes were caught by Clark. Williams was the leading rusher for the Blue Jays with 91 yards on nine carries and a touchdown.

O'Connor completed 5 of 12 passes for 112 yards for LCC. He threw one touchdown against two interceptions. Kirkman led the Thunderbirds with 81 yards on two catches. Royster went for 58 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown.

St. John's had the edge in yards of total offense, piling up 294 yards to 222.

St. John's improves to 1-0 on the season with the win while LCC falls to 0-1 on the year.

The Blue Jays will tangle with Tinora next Friday at Delphos Stadium. The Thunderbirds will travel to Convoy to battle the 1-0 Knights of Crestview.

St. John's 7 7 0 7_21

LCC 0 7 0 7_14

First Quarter

DSJ_Leininger 2 run, 4:53

Second Quarter

LCC_Royster 2 run, 9:45

DSJ_Leininger 2 run, 0:34

Third Quarter

Fourth Quarter

LCC_Johnson 17 pass from O'Connor, 6:49

DSJ_Williams 17 run, 0:56