Moral victories sometimes can be difficult to accept.

NEW PHILADELPHIA, Ohio - Moral victories sometimes can be difficult to accept.

The teary faces of the Marion-Franklin players and the words of coach Brian Haffele said it all last night after a 17-9 loss to defending state champion Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary at Woody Hayes Quaker Stadium ended what many considered an improbable playoff run.

"Honestly, what did the people up there think?" asked Haffele, pointing toward the press box. "I don't think many people around Ohio gave us much of a chance. They thought it would be a blowout. This is the closest anybody has played them in ages. From that vantage point, I guess we gained a lot of respect.

"But gosh darn it, we could have won this game."

The Red Devils (12-2), the City League South Division champions, reached the red zone five times but managed just a touchdown and a field goal. They fumbled inside the 1-yard line, ran out of downs at the 6 and stalled out at the 16 with just 1:01 remaining while trying to tie the score.

"The bottom line was our offense just wasn't able to get it done we needed to," junior defensive lineman Shemar Moss said. "A lot of credit goes to those guys (St. Vincent-St. Mary). They had tremendous speed, and they had us on our heels all night on offense.

"They left here tonight knowing they were in a football game, that's for sure."

St. Vincent-St. Mary (14-0) will face Trotwood-Madison (11-2) on Thursday at Massillon in the Division III final.

Things started bleakly for Marion-Franklin. On St. Vincent-St. Mary's first play, Ohio State-bound tailback Parris Campbell took a handoff, changed direction, reached the corner and raced 81 yards for a touchdown.

Marion-Franklin answered by driving the field but came up short on fourth-and-3 at the 6.

The Fighting Irish added a 20-yard field goal by Evan Cunningham with 4:22 left in the half, but the Red Devils' Shawn Thomas kicked a 36-yard field goal in the final minute to make it 10-3.

The tide turned on the first series of the third quarter. St. Vincent-St. Mary quarterback Aaron Bushner, who was intercepted on both of his first-half passes, threw a deep ball downfield that Tyrece Speaight caught for a 54-yard touchdown.

"That would have been intercepted had (Cameron McCuen) just turned around," Haffele said. "That might have changed the game."

The Red Devils, however, needed just three plays to respond. Quarterback Justin Tyler broke out of the pocket for a 44-yard run and then scored on a 16-yard keeper with 10:14 left. The extra-point kick was blocked.

Marion-Franklin stopped St. Vincent-St. Mary on fourth-and-5 at the Red Devils 19 with 6:14 remaining and made a fourth-and-1 stop with 2:31 left.

Tyler drove Marion-Franklin to the St. Vincent-St. Mary 16. A third-and-2 pass into the end zone to Michael Winfrey was tipped away by Corey Whaley. A fourth-down pass skipped off the turf incomplete.

Tyler often was under siege. He was sacked eight times and many times extended plays with broken-field scrambles.

"They really had some great athletes, especially at linebacker, and we had a hard time keeping them off Justin," two-way senior lineman Martesse Patterson said.

The main culprit was Ohio State-bound junior Dante Booker, who was often in Marion-Franklin's backfield.

Campbell, who finished with 181 yards on 23 carries, had nothing but praise for the Red Devils defense, which was unrelenting in the second half.

"Those were the hardest yards I've rushed for all year," Campbell said. "That was the toughest defense we've seen."

Haffele tried to put the season in perspective.

"We threw everything we had at them, but they were just really good and we have to accept that," Haffele said. "I can't begin to say how proud I am of our guys. We fought through a ton of adversity this year, but these guys really believed in themselves and they brought it from day one."