2 football players celebrate
Ashland’s Michael Franz (13) and Tyler Sauder (5) celebrate Franz’ second touchdown catch Friday night at Ashland Community Stadium. The Arrows won 26-20 on overtime. Credit: Doug Haidet

ASHLAND – All the eyes in Ashland Community Stadium might have been on Arrows quarterback Nathan Bernhard on Friday night, but it was the sophomore’s supporting cast stealing the spotlight.

After losing its grip on a 20-7 halftime lead, Ashland needed overtime to survive a walk-off, 26-20 win over River Valley in the teams’ first-ever meeting.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Bernhard entered his first season-opening start at quarterback with three NCAA Division I offers already in his back pocket, but he didn’t throw a pass in overtime.

Instead, after Ashland held the Vikings scoreless on the opening possession of OT, it was running back Cayden Spotts – the only senior starter on the AHS offense – cutting around right end for the clinching 5-yard touchdown.

Doug Haidet captured this video on the goal line Friday night at Community Stadium.

The play set off a wild celebration that never would have happened had it not been for a blocked PAT kick off the forearm of Ashland sophomore Gunner Lacey with 9:33 left in regulation. That play kept the score tied at 20-20 and gave the Arrows their chance.

“Everyone has a role, so the pressure’s on everyone,” said Lacey, who also broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone from River Valley quarterback Chase Ebert (25-of-34 passing for 215 yards) on the first drive of overtime.

“All it takes is one person to not do their job and that changes the game completely.”

Add in a pair of first-half touchdown receptions from Michael Franz (10 catches, 131 yards); first-half field goals of 24 and 33 yards from Carson O’Brien; and a bend-but-don’t-break defense and the Arrows escaped coach Scott Valentine’s return to the program with a win.

Valentine, who left Ashland after 2018 as its all-time wins leader (130-60) before coming back this season, said there was no doubt the win felt good.

“That’s why we took defense first (in overtime), because then we knew what we had to get,” Valentine said. “Once we got possession, we knew (O’Brien) could kick the ball through the uprights (if needed). So we were going to give (Spotts) the opportunity to get the ball in the end zone, and he did that.”

“They trust me with the ball,” Spotts said, “so I’m going to trust the (offensive) line and I’m going to make cuts off them. They did a fantastic job.”

Spotts covered all 20 yards on four carries in overtime and finished the game with 97 yards on 22 carries while also catching four passes for 24 yards.

Bernhard flashed plenty of his college-quarterback potential on a night when he went 30 of 42 for 283 yards and the two scores. While he had just 24 yards on eight carries – all in the first half – four of those runs went for first downs.

Franz took Bernhard’s first touchdown pass up the right sideline for a 22-yard score after he was able to spin out of a tackle in the first quarter to make it 10-0.

Then after River Valley answered with a 1-yard touchdown run from Trayten Mercer (11 carries, 60 yards), the Viking defense lost Franz in coverage deep down the left sideline on the ensuing drive.

That allowed the junior to camp under a Bernhard pass and sprint in for a 52-yard score and a 17-7 lead.

Ebert (11 carries, 73 yards) punched in scoring runs from the 1- and 3-yard lines in the second half for the Vikings to knot the game up at 20-20, and the Arrows were kicking themselves for missed opportunities.

While O’Brien’s 33-yard field goal capped off a 16-play drive to close the first half, Ashland had a Bernhard-to-Tyler Sauder touchdown pass wiped off the board due to a hold earlier in the drive.

Then on the second drive of the second half, Bernhard had a 14-yard touchdown run negated by two penalties on the same play that moved the Arrows back 30 yards.

“We had some costly penalties that brought back a bunch of big plays,” said Bernhard, who also threw an interception to River Valley’s Eli Snyder on the opening drive of the second half – the game’s only turnover.

“(Defensive coordinator Ryan Stackhouse) got our defense to rally,” he added. “They did a great job in big moments getting stops that we needed.”

The Vikings weren’t without their own Week 1 blunders, getting a 29-yard touchdown pass called back due to holding on the game’s opening drive, which stalled after a big tackle from Ashland’s Josh Pancake.

The Arrow defense also got key sacks from Austin Downing, Brandon Briggs and Gavin Hoffman.

A year after allowing over 60 points in three different games – including their season-opening loss to Norwayne – the Ashland defense never allowed the back-breaking play Friday.

“The defense, they just didn’t give up,” Lacey said. “We kept pushing.”

River Valley returning All-Ohioan Keyan Shidone had nine catches for 107 yards, accounting for about half of the passing yardage for Ebert, a junior starting at quarterback for the first time.

Bernhard said it was a top-to-bottom effort to open the season for an Ashland team that graduated 22 players from last year and had a lot of things to learn about itself Friday night.

“Once you get out here, the nerves kind of go away,” Bernhard said. “It was just great to face adversity this first game and end up getting through that and coming out with the win here.”

The Arrows are back at Ashland Community Stadium next week when they host Marion Harding.

Doug Haidet is a 17-year resident of Ashland. He wrote sports in some capacity for the Ashland Times-Gazette from 2006 to 2018. He lives with his wife, Christy, and son, Murphy.