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Bustling Bombers believe third time’s a charm

Published in The Chagrin Valley Times
November 29, 2018
Tony Lange

Division III, state championship
No. 4 Kenston Bombers (13-1) vs. No. 1 Archbishop Alter Knights (13-1)
3 p.m. Friday
Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium

The long bus ride home should have been loud and rowdy the entire way back to a police escort in Bainbridge Township, but the Division III AP No. 4-ranked Kenston Bombers (13-1) didn’t set their sights on just a state semifinal victory.

So, while traveling north on Interstate 77 after putting a 40-7 hurting on No. 7 Columbus Eastmoor Academy on Friday night in New Philadelphia, the Kenston boys went silent and peered out their bus windows to the west as they passed by Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.

“Yeah, we made sure everybody was quiet and took a nice look over there as we passed it on the way home from New Philly Friday night,” Kenston seventh-year head coach Jeff Grubich said. “So, the kids know it. They expect it. They’ve embraced the grind. A 15-week season is tough for any athlete, let alone a high school football player. So, we’re excited about this opportunity, man, and I can’t wait to get to work on Monday.”

In their program’s third trip to a state championship game, the Bombers will collide with the AP No. 1-ranked Kettering Archbishop Alter Knights (13-1) of Montgomery County, in the Dayton area, at 3 p.m. Friday at the Hall of Fame Stadium.

In Kenston’s first trip to a title game, the 1986 Bombers lost a 7-6 battle against defending champion Cincinnati Academy of Physical Education at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. Then-junior quarterback Mike Dinallo scored on a 4-yard waggle run late in the fourth quarter, but the ensuing extra-point kick was blocked.

And in Kenston’s second trip to a title game, the 1995 Bombers lost a 3-0 defensive struggle against Clyde at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon. A 32-yard field goal less than two minutes into the game was the difference, after a clipping call kept that drive alive.

“The last time we went was ’95 and then also in ’86, but we lost both times,” Kenston senior left tackle George Sell said. “So, we want to change the outcome. Third time’s a charm.”

The 2018 Bombers enter the state championship game with the momentum any team could hope for. Instead of their playoff margins of victory getting tighter with each round, the Kenston boys have somehow inflicted more dominating wins each week.

After a 14-point triumph against Millersburg West Holmes to open the postseason, Kenston put together a 19-point triumph against No. 14-ranked Medina Buckeye, a 26-point triumph against No. 3 Canfield and then a 33-point triumph against No. 7 Columbus Eastmoor Academy.

In the state semifinals last week, Kenston outgained Eastmoor, 433 yards to 198 yards, with the Bombers putting on a spanking in the trenches to outrush the Warriors, 338 yards to 43 yards.

Junior quarterback Jon Tomcufcik completed seven passes for 95 yards, but he tucked the pigskin 13 times for 107 yards and three touchdowns, while junior Jack Porter finished with 183 yards on 26 carries for two touchdowns.

Defensively, Kenston held Eastmoor to four-of-nine on third downs and zero-of-two on fourth downs with sacks from senior lineman Mitch Sotera and senior linebackers Matt Iklodi and Joe Staudenbaur, while Iklodi and senior defensive back Nick Franklin both had interceptions to win the turnover battle, 2-0.

It was another dominating victory by the Bombers, to say the least.

Archbishop Alter, meanwhile, is coming off a 34-13 state semifinal triumph against unranked Norwalk (10-4) in a game the Knights led just 14-6 at halftime.

Alter is under 27th-year head coach Ed Domsitz, who has been coaching high school football for 44 years overall with a 340-148 record, which ranks him seventh among Ohio’s all-time winningest coaches.

In 24 playoff appearances as a program, including 18 straight, Alter is making its fifth trip to the state championship game with a 2-2 record on the big stage. The Knights own back-to-back state titles with a 21-6 win against an unbeaten Steubenville team in 2008 and a 37-7 win against an unbeaten Chagrin Falls team in 2009.

“It’s a doggone, darn good football team,” Grubich said of 2018 Alter. “I mean, they are a darn good football team. They like to run that wishbone backfield and run the ball and control the clock and then just play great defense and keep everything in front of them. They’re fundamentally sound, they’re well-coached, they’re disciplined, everything you would expect to see in a state title game.”

In Alter’s 34-13 victory against Norwalk last week, 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior running back Lamar Landers scored on 2- and 7-yard touchdown runs in the first half, before finishing the game with 11 carries for 52 yards.

But the Knights’ offense includes four run options in the wishbone formation, with 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior quarterback Connor Bazelak under center, 5-foot-9, 215-pound senior fullback Peter Riazzi lined up 4 yards behind the quarterback and then Landers and fellow running back, 6-foot-1, 225-pound sophomore Branden McDonald, both lined up about 6 yards behind the offensive guards.

“They try to outnumber you and do the power run game,” Grubich said. “We have not seen the wishbone like they have run it, and we haven’t seen it in probably my seven years here. So, we’ve got to figure that thing out and get ready to play it.”

The scary thing is, Alter’s wishbone package wasn’t what did Norwalk in last week.

In an attempt to tie the game, the Truckers lost a fourth-and-one fumble at the 8-yard line. On the next play, Alter quarterback Bazelak, who’s committed to Missouri, dialed up 6-foot-3, 195-pound senior receiver Derek Willits on a fly route for a 92-yard touchdown and a 21-6 upper hand with 31 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

“Yeah, No. 9 is a good football player,” Grubich said of Willits. “He’s pretty fast, and he’s a deep threat that we’ve got to recognize. We’ll probably have (Bransen) Stanley lined up on him all night.”

Defensively, Alter surrendered plenty of yards against Norwalk. Trucker quarterback Garrett Chapin was 17-of-33 for 172 yards, and running back Trevon Raymore had 32 carries for 166 yards against Alter.

But Norwalk couldn’t keep drives alive, turning the pigskin over on downs at the Alter 34-, 25-, 7- and 8-yard lines, not to mention a pair of field goals on two other stalled opportunities.

“They like to play a four-three cover zero,” Grubich said of Alter’s defense. “They want to keep seven guys in the box, and they basically want to dare you to beat them with the pass. So, our philosophy’s been the same all year. We’ll take what the defense gives us. If they’re going to load the box up with seven, eight guys, then we’re going to have to throw the rock out to Stanley, (Ryan) Miller, (Tyler) Mintz and Javion (Middleton). And those are all good options. So, I think, if we take what they give us, we’ll still be OK.

“One thing they’re going to try to do, though, is put pressure on Jonny (Tomcufcik) and try to get the quarterback on the ground. So, our O-line has got to have a great week of prep and understand that they’re going to have to see some different looks and be ready to take on some different blitz packages.”

Riding a 13-game win streak, Alter’s lone loss was a 12-6 affair against Division I Kettering Fairmont (7-4) in week one.

Overall, the Knights are surrendering just 7.7 points on the average this season and haven’t given up more than 20 points in any single outing, which is a similar challenge the Bombers faced entering their 33-7 regional title win against Canfield.

“The biggest thing for us is to focus on us,” Grubich said. “I’ve got to make sure my dudes are ready to go, and that’s going to be the focus all week. We’ve got four days left in the season – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. That’s all we’ve got left, and we’re going to bust our butts Monday through Thursday and hopefully put a nice product out on the field on Friday afternoon.”

TONY’S TAKE: Kenston wins, 28-24.