Hunter Maynard considered it the series that turned the game around for the Watterson High School football team.

Hunter Maynard considered it the series that turned the game around for the Watterson High School football team.

It also might have been called the ultimate high for a defense that has lifted the Eagles to their first state final four since 2004.

During Watterson's 18-7 victory last Saturday over Tiffin Columbian at Ohio Wesleyan, the complexion of the game - and the Eagles' season - might have been radically different if not for the play of its defense in the middle of the second quarter.

That should only increase Watterson's confidence as it prepares to face Cincinnati McNicholas at 7 p.m. Saturday in a Division III state semifinal.

While the Eagles are 11-1, the Rockets improved to 11-2 with a 39-14 win last Saturday over Eaton at Mason. McNicholas, in the playoffs for the first time since 2003, features an option offense that rarely was stopped this season. The Rockets' schedule included seven regular-season opponents that finished with winning records.

"We've worked so hard for this moment," said Eagles senior wide receiver and defensive back Brad McCurdy. "To get over the hump after how we went down last year in the regional final, it feels amazing."

The Eagles, who lost to DeSales 24-10 to settle for a Region 10 runner-up finish last year, led 3-0 last Saturday when they called on their defense to step up.

Quarterback Patrick Rhomberg played the first two offensive series for the Eagles but stayed on the sidelines for the third one, which began 6 minutes, 21 seconds before halftime. Rhomberg spent his entire time on the field limping with a right foot injury.

The Eagles brought in sophomore Andy Elberson to play quarterback for their third offensive possession. On third-and-6 on Elberson's third play, Ryan Tittle intercepted a pass intended for Erik Oman near the Eagles' 28. Michael Szaraz knocked Tittle out of bounds at the Watterson 2.

Tittle, who also was Columbian's quarterback, threw incomplete on first-and-goal then was stopped for no gain by Maynard on a keeper. Tittle then completed a pass to Derrick Goliday on third down, but Craig Fada stuffed him for a 4-yard loss. Caden Chapman then missed a 23-yard field goal.

That series set the tone for the Eagles, who faltered for one second-half drive defensively but allowed just 124 yards of offense.

"Our defense has been working together," Fada said. "With the interception we knew that our young quarterback just made a mistake, but we came back and bent but never broke."

Rhomberg returned for the next series and played the rest of the game. Despite being able to drop back only a couple steps into the pocket, he finished 13-for-23 for 113 yards.

Columbian completed a 14-play, 62-yard drive and took a 7-3 lead with 3:55 to go in the third quarter when Tittle hit Mike Lee for a 15-yard touchdown.

The Eagles - and Rhomberg - found enough answers on the ensuing drive to score their first touchdown and retake the lead. Rhomberg went 4-for-4 passing for 24 yards during the possession, including hitting McCurdy for a 5-yard catch on fourth-and-4 from the Tornadoes' 24.

Six plays later, Rhomberg scored on a 1-yard keeper up the middle with 8:13 remaining. There was a poor snap on the extra point to McCurdy, the holder, but he threw to an open Ben Lawson in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion to make it 11-7.

Rhomberg inspired the Eagles with his play, McCurdy said.

"I didn't know (he was going to play) until the first play of the game," McCurdy said. "The first day he came out for practice was (last Friday). He showed tonight how bad he wanted it."

On the play after Watterson retook the lead, Tittle ran for 5 yards but had the ball stripped by Justin McCarthy and Fada fell on it at the Columbian 23.

Six plays later, Rhomberg hooked up with Fada for a 4-yard touchdown reception.

Fada had been thrown to just two other times all season, although one of those attempts came during the second quarter. On third-and-1 from the Columbian 8, Fada couldn't hold on to a pass from Rhomberg and the Eagles had to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Tim Carter.

"When I dropped that first touchdown, the guy was right on me and unfortunately I didn't come down with it," Fada said. "But the second time, I wasn't coming down without the ball."

The Eagles are one game away from reaching the state final for the first time since they won the 2002 title. In 2004, they lost to St. Marys Memorial 14-3 in a state semifinal.

If Watterson beats McNicholas, it will play for the championship at 3 p.m. Dec. 4 in Massillon Paul Brown Tiger Stadium against Akron Buchtel or Alliance Marlington. Buchtel is the only other Division III team still alive to previously have won a title (1987 and '88).

"We've been preaching the whole year that our season wasn't going to end until December," Fada said. "Six years is a long time (to not be in the state final four)."