COLUMBUS — The Frontenac Raiders are the 2016 CNC League Champions, following their hard-fought 21-20 victory over the Columbus Titans Friday night in Columbus.
In a matchup of two of the top teams in their classification, Frontenac and Columbus traded blows, with the Titans having the lead twice, including a 20-14 lead with just over eight minutes to go. It was the Raiders who were able to deliver the knockout blow, with Isaac Bicknell’s 8-yard touchdown reception with just over six minutes to go in the fourth quarter for the final score of the game.
“Columbus really came out firing; I told our kids they would,” Frontenac head coach Mark Smith said after the game. “It was great to see our kids handle the adversity, as we hadn’t seen much all year. I am proud of our seniors and our leaders. They kept focused, kept positive, and made plays when they needed to.”
After holding Frontenac to a quick three-and-out to start the game, Columbus went on a 15-play drive that had them looking at fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Keenan Stanley, who had done most of the work for the Titans, was wrapped up for an 8-yard loss, turning the ball over.
Another quick drive by the Raiders resulted in Columbus getting the ball back at Frontenac’s 38-yard line, following Stanley’s punt return of over 30 yards.
This time, the Titans were able to convert, going up 6-0 following Ridge Smith’s 11-yard pass to Payton Hale, just into the second quarter.
Frontenac was able to respond on their next drive. Ryan Long drew a pass interference call on third-and-seven, extending the series for the Raiders. A few plays later, on what looked like a busted play, Brandon Mlekus was able to scamper 37 yards down to the Titan 3-yard line.
Moments later, Austin Madl punched in for the score, and Trey Harris’ extra point gave Frontenac the 7-6 lead.
The Raider defense was able to get a three-and-out from Columbus’ offense on the following possession, getting the ball back.
After a couple of first downs, Frontenac had the ball at Columbus' 38. Mlekus threw a quick pass to Long, who made one Titan player miss and was off to the races for the score, putting the Raiders up 14-6.
Columbus started the second half exactly like they did the first, with a prolonged drive that covered a lot of yards and used a lot of the clock. This time, on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, they were able to score as Stanley avoided a Jake Wilbert tackle to fall in. The two-point conversion failed, leaving Frontenac with a 14-12 lead.
The Titans defense stopped the Raiders on fourth down at their own 20-yard line, but Dylan Flora forced a fumble by Hale on the first play of the next drive.
Unfortunately, for Frontenac, they were unable to convert the excellent field position, fumbling the ball back inside the 15.
To begin the fourth quarter, Columbus was lined up to punt after the Raiders had stopped the Titans on the drive following the fumble.
A running-into-the-punter penalty extended the Columbus drive. The Titans capitalized.
Instead of having the ball inside their opponent’s 40 and a chance to put the game away, Frontenac had to try and stop the Titans. Smith converted an 18-yard pass down to the Raider 11 on fourth down. Zach Porter punched the ball across the goal line shortly later and the two-point conversion was successful, putting Columbus up 20-14 with just over eight minutes to play.
Mlekus went for 18 yards up the left side on the first play on the next drive, and Madl went for 30 on the second play, quickly putting the Raiders inside the Titans’ 10-yard line.
On third down from the 8, Mlekus tried to thread a pass to Isaac Bicknell in the back of the end zone. A Titan player stepped in front of Bicknell for what looked like a game-saving interception, except it wasn’t.
Bicknell yanked the ball away from the Titan safety before hitting the ground with the ball for the touchdown. Harris’ point after was good, giving Frontenac the 21-20 lead with just over six minutes to go.
“We knew when they scored in the fourth, that when we got the ball back they couldn’t stop us,” Mlekus said. “We were just able to do our thing, and we knew we had the last touchdown. Their offensive line was huge, and Stanley is the best back we have seen all year, but we knew if we did what we were capable of, then we wouldn’t lose. I am proud of my team.”
On fourth-and-2 from their own 39-yard line, and just under four minutes to go, Columbus elected to punt the ball, even though they only had one timeout left.
The Raiders offense stayed in the sure hands of Mlekus – who finished with 180 yards rushing on 22 carries and 86 yards passing – for the rest of the game. Runs of 11, 15, and 14 yards on consecutive plays gave Frontenac the ball in Titan territory.
With just under a minute to go, the Raiders had the ball fourth-and-1 from the Columbus 29-yard line. Following a block by fullback Flora, Mlekus converted the first down.
Two plays later, Frontenac had earned the victory, 21-20.
“We really needed to test our manhood, and we got that test tonight” senior lineman A.J. Lusker said. “Honestly, I am really happy with how we came back; that was the first time we had been down all year.”