But senior running back Josh Bailey wanted to make sure it never got that far.
Paired up with Storm Klein in a split-back set for the first time all season on third-and-13, Bailey’s eyes grew big when a hole opened on the left side.
He darted through it and with his jaunt down the sideline, Bailey gave himself a play for Valley legend. His 65-yard touchdown with 25 seconds left provided the Panthers a thrilling 27-21 victory against Mentor Lake Catholic in Friday’s Division III state semifinal at Massillon’s Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.
Bailey cracked a smile in the moments after the win, but with steam rising off his shaved head, he calmly talked about the play that sent Valley to the state final.
“I just saw a big hole open up and by the time I got the ball, nobody knew where it was, so I got out,” Bailey said. “It feels great. I just look forward to next week.”
Valley will go for its first state title next Friday when it takes on Big Walnut (13-1) in the Division III finale at 3 p.m. at Fawcett Stadium in Canton.
The Panthers lost 40-13 to Kenton in the Division IV state final in 2001, and the Golden Eagles (13-1), 21-7 winners against Lemon-Monroe, will make their first trip.
The Panthers (13-1) have won 12 straight games, but they needed Bailey’s run despite controlling the clock and the total yardage for the majority of Friday’s game.
Licking Valley outgained the Cougars (9-5) 338-232 and controlled the clock for more than four minutes longer, despite a 9-minute drive Lake Catholic put together to tie the game at 21 with 1:32 remaining.
By then, Baughman was thinking of taking his chances for overtime. Bailey obviously had other plans.
“We’re not going to give them an opportunity to score, so it was basically we’re thinking we were going to go to overtime and win it in overtime,” Baughman said. “Josh Bailey had a different idea.”
Bailey was one of three rushers to gain at least 85 rushing yards, finishing with 87 of Valley’s 319 on nine carries. Klein, the Valley standout headed to Ohio State, had 130 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, and Nick Phillips had 88 and a score on 13 touches.
“We don’t think about overtime. We think about putting it in every time we get the ball,” Bailey said.
Klein said Bailey delivered the same message in the huddle.
“Coach came out and said taking it to overtime was fine. Josh told me there was no overtime,” Klein said. “He said we were going to score right here. He called it and he took it. I could just give him a big hug.”
Klein deserved some pats on the back as well, especially after Valley nearly sputtered away early momentum. Phillips’ 35-yard run on Valley’s first possession put the Panthers up 7-0 and they drove inside the Cougar 15-yard line on their next trip.
But a 30-yard field goal was blocked, and Lake Catholic standout Randy Greenwood returned it 74 yards for a score. Greenwood added another big blow just minutes later, taking a direct snap 90 yards for a touchdown.
It sent Lake Catholic into halftime with a 14-7 lead, but Baughman continued to see steely determination in a group that has dreamed big all season.
The drive to open the second half was all Klein, and the capper of the 69-yard march was a 33-yard run to pull Valley within 14-13.
Klien’s 20-yard run on fourth-and-1 early in the fourth quarter – and pass to Nick Phillips on the two-point conversion – gave the Panthers a 21-14 lead.
“It was big,” Klein said. “Coach just told me to take over. I sort of took that to heart.”
Klein’s heroics looked to be the difference, but the Cougars answered with an 18-play drive to tie it at 21, getting a two-yard run from Greenwood, who had 157 yards on 19 carries.
That score, however, set the stage for Bailey.
“This is almost like a dream come true, but it’s not complete yet,” Valley senior Taylor Rakestraw said. “It’s a relief to get (to state), but we’ve still got work to do.”