Van Wert players and cheerleaders pose with their State playoff shirts moments after the Cougars beat Defiance 37-0 to clinch a home playoff game next Saturday. (DHI Media/ Reid Maus)
Van Wert players and cheerleaders pose with their State playoff shirts moments after the Cougars beat Defiance 37-0 to clinch a home playoff game next Saturday. (DHI Media/ Reid Maus)
Van Wert — For the first time in its storied history Eggerss Stadium will host a Van Wert playoff game. If someone was born on the date of the last Cougars playoff game, they would be able to vote in the up-coming election— let that sink in.

Though they knew for a week they were heading to the playoffs Cougars players leaped in celebration when the final seconds ticked off the clock in Van Wert’s 37-0 stomping over the Defiance Bulldogs. While the players went through the line shaking hands with their Western Buckeye League counterparts, Van Wert’s head coach Keith Recker went looking for his family.

Recker, hosting up one of his children, pointed his players in the direction of a pair of boxes, inside of which might as well been gold for the 8-2 playoff bound Cougars. The flaps of the box pulled back to reveal dozens of Van Wert 2018 playoffs t-shirts. I eavesdropped to hear at least one player proclaim that he was wearing his newly found prized possession everyday to school next week.

Recker let his team cherish the moment, as he didn’t even talk to them till after the shirts were passed out, after the fans rushed the field and after a full photo shoot showing off the new attire. One word kept ringing in the air through all the excitement— “history.” Which is true, history was made in Van Wert tonight. The first playoff appearance in 18 years, the first eight win season in 30 years and to belabor a previously made point— the first time the Cougars will host a playoff game. Eggerss Stadium, which was built during the Roosevelt administration (FDR not Teddy, it isn’t that old) will have playoff football underneath the lights next Saturday.

“It’s exciting,” said Recker of the Cougars already historic season once the excitement was calming down on the field. “We tried talking to the guys this week, because we figured that we were going to be in the playoffs win or lose, so this week was really about doing things that haven’t happened in a long time.”

The Cougars weren’t done any favors with their schedule either, as their first two WBL games were against not only the two best teams in the conference but two of the better teams in the state— in Wapakoneta and St. Mary’s. After two tough losses and a 1-2 record Van Wert was staring into the abyss of a disappointing season with an incredibly talented roster. Then the next week they scratched and clawed (as Cougars tend to do) their way to victory over Ottawa-Glandorf in overtime.

“You look at that Ottawa-Glandorf game where we kept our composure, we were really facing adversity there in the fourth quarter and we game back to win and have been on a roll since then,” said Recker of the moment that changed the season going forward.

And right he was, as since that O-G game Van Wert has outscored their opponents by 176 points in just six games, which included two shutouts including the one they served to the Bulldogs on Friday night.

As for the game itself, the Cougars had a slow start. Just a week ago, Coach Recker said that it seems the offense scores on the first drive every game— which was true up until tonight.

The Bulldogs were crushing Van Wert’s run game early on in the match-up. It didn’t matter if it was Nate Place or Jake Hilleary for the first two drives, the Cougars just couldn’t get anything going on the ground, which on a wet and rainy night the ground game was ever-so important.

The defense for Van Wert didn’t waver though, as the Cougars only allowed 67 yards in the first half. Defense was truly the best offense on Friday as because of the stone wall that was their defense Van Wert started with fantastic field possession on more than one occasion.

Though the Bulldogs d-line was resistant the Cougars ground game eventually did break through, as Jake Hilleary took a 36 yard rush up the left side of the field which made it first and goal. The very next play was five yard punch in by the Cougars half-back.

After three subsequent three-and-outs by both teams Van Wert broke out, as their senior captain and quarterback Nate Place took a 60 yard rush to the house for a Van Wert 13-0 lead.

“One thing [Defiance] does so well is they stop the run,” said the playoff-bound coahc, Recker. “We needed our defense to play, and I think we played defensively really well… We just needed a big play, and once we got that we were rolling.”

The Cougars scored one more time in the first half and it came when Place found Tanner Barnhart down-field for an 80 passing touchdown. The wind was knocked out of the Bulldogs sails and Van Wert was in firm control.

The other scores for the Cougars came with a Place-Owen Treece connection for 28 yards right up the seam and also a eight yard rush by Place with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Van Wert would knock a 29 yard field goal to cement their 37-0 shutout over Defiance who still had playoff hopes alive.

One thing that did worry Recker was how his team would react to them clinching a playoff spot last week in Celina.

“There was so much playoff talk, but I think the guys are so in-tuned with taking it week-by-week,” noted Recker on his team’s focus this week. “We talked about how we weren’t going to win a playoff game this week, so we had to win what we could and they took to that attitude real well.”

The Cougars will find out this weekend who they will be hosting next Saturday in Eggerss stadium. The game could be cold, raining, maybe even snowy— that much we will wait to see but one thing that is for sure is the game will historic.

Side note— this is the first year that I have been covering Cougar football and Van Wert has their first home playoff game in history and their best season in 30 years… maybe I’m a good luck charm.