Nate Phillips of Van Wert runs up field against West Holmes on Saturday night. (DHI Media/Pat Agler)
Nate Phillips of Van Wert runs up field against West Holmes on Saturday night. (DHI Media/Pat Agler)

MARION — Just keep finding a way to win. That's exactly what Van Wert did in the their regional semifinal victory over previously undefeated West Holmes 40-35 on Saturday night at Harding Stadium.

After originally holding a 21-0 lead, the Cougars went down 35-34 to the Knights with 5:11 remaining in the game.

Over the next minute and 17 seconds, Aidan Pratt and the Van Wert offense executed a game-winning, six-play drive that ended with a 44-yard touchdown pass to Nate Phillips.

Following the Phillips score, the Van Wert defense locked-up West Holmes for a turnover on downs in four plays to clinch a trip to the regional title game for the third straight year.

"We wanted to get the ball to Nate on that play and Aidan made a nice throw," said Van Wert head coach Keith Recker. "They had trouble tackling him all night and he made a few kids miss there."

"I caught the ball, turned up field and I saw 24 (Sam Williams-Dixon) in front of me," said Cougar wide out Nate Phillips. "He's a good player and I just ran straight at him. After that, I made a few other guys miss, regained my balance with my hand on the ground and took off from there."

It was Pratt's sixth touchdown of the night, but first through the air and arguably his most important.

"That a good route concept against a cover four defense," said Aidan Pratt of the play. "I read the corner, put the ball on him (Phillips) and let him do the rest. I've got all the faith in my wide receivers to make something happen and Nate made a heck of a play."

The catch was Phillips' ninth of the game on the way to a team-high 126 total yards and that score.

Pratt completed 30 of 39 passes for 281 yards and one touchdown through the air. He did the majority of his damage on the ground with 103 yards on 27 carries and five touchdowns, nearly doubling his regular season total.

Pratt ran for scores from two and one yard out to put Van Wert up 14-0 after one. In the second quarter, he completed a 12-play drive with a 6-yard touchdown run to put the Cougars up 21-0.

After West Holmes struck twice on a 63-yard connection from quarterback Mason Wolfe to Kyle Maltarich and a 13-yard run from Sam Williams-Dixon to cut the difference to seven, Pratt scored again late in the half from 10 yards out.

"We needed to get the ball going on the ground and our line made sure that it happened," said Recker. "We made a lot of adjustments to block the looks that they gave us and Aidan ran hard tonight."

"Our coaching staff put a great game plan together and switched up some things on the o-line to try and get the run game going," said Pratt. "They blocked really well tonight and opened holes for me to run through, so I have to give it up to those guys."

West Holmes opened up the second half with a four-minute drive that ended in Kyle Maltarich's second touchdown of the game on a 36-yard hookup. Maltarich accounted for nearly two thirds of the Knights total offense with 10 catches for 201 yards and two scores on the evening.

Pratt's fifth rushing touchdown came on a quick four-play drive that started on West Holmes' 24 yard-line thanks to a fumble recovery from Reese Krugh. Krugh also had an interception in the first quarter and Luke Wessell picked off a pass in the second.

With the score at 34-22, the Knights chewed up the final five minutes of the third and Williams-Dixon found his way into the end zone on his seventh touch of the drive to make it a 34-29 game.

Van Wert punted on their first drive of the fourth quarter and West Holmes responded by taking their first lead of the game on another touchdown run from Williams-Dixon. A failed two-point attempt left the score at 35-34.

"After they scored, we just told ourselves that the game wasn't over," said Pratt. "We knew we were the underdog in this one, but we had all the grit and all the fight. As a team, we put a good drive together down the stretch and we came out on top because of it."

The result of that game-winning drive and the four-down defensive stop that followed meant that the Cougars are headed to the regional title game for the third straight year.

"It's so awesome to have three straight years of this," said Recker of the accomplishment. "It's great to see how far our players have brought our program. We try to tell them to make sure they enjoy this because it wasn't always this way for us. They've earned every bit of it."

"It's really kudos to this class and the classes before us for making this happen," said Pratt. "We put in a bunch of work and the coaching staff spends a bunch of hours working to put us in a position to succeed."

"It's a great feeling," continued Pratt. "I love this team, these guys and the community and we're ready to go play in our third straight regional final game on Saturday."

For Phillips, it'll be his first trip to the regional title game.

"This is crazy," said Phillips of the moment. "I've enjoyed every moment of this postseason and regular season. All these comeback wins have been fun."

On Saturday the Cougars are set to take on top-seeded Cleveland Glenville at a location to be determined on Sunday. The Tarblooders had few issues with Elyria Catholic in their 54-7 regional semifinal victory.

"We need to keep believing in ourselves next week and keep playing with confidence," said Recker. "We also need to continue to execute whatever game plan we put in place. That's something we did very well tonight and we need to continue that against Glenville on Saturday."