Published in The Chagrin Valley Times
November 29, 2018
Up front and center of a Kenston defense that’s been lights out the past two weeks, Bomber 6-foot-1, 275-pound senior nose tackle Mitch Sotera was a bone-crusher against Canfield and Eastmoor Academy’s offenses.
In particular, Sotera delivered a fourth-down sack against Eastmoor 150-pound senior quarterback Marquise Laster during the Warriors’ opening drive that had the signal-caller looking over his shoulder for the rest of the night during Kenston’s 40-7 rout in state semifinal action on Friday in New Philadelphia.
Sotera owns 47 tackles and two fumble recoveries entering the Bombers’ Division III state championship game against AP No. 1-ranked Kettering Archbishop Alter (13-1) at 3 p.m. Friday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
In attendance will be his old man, Darrin Sotera, who was a starting offensive lineman for the 1986 Kenston Bombers, who went 11-3 with a state runner-up finish against Cincinnati Academy of Physical Education, 7-6, in front of 8,203 fans at Ohio Stadium in Columbus.
“Of course, it’s more rewarding now, watching him play, than it was playing back then,” the elder Sotera said. “I mean, it’s just amazing. We kind of saw this coming last year, that they were going to have a special football team, and you never know if you’re going to go this far, but I kind of had a pretty good feeling they were going to go pretty deep. They’re exceeding all expectations, that’s for sure.”
While a lot of the attention this season has been on Kenston’s potent offense that’s averaging 40.2 points per game, most of the hype in 1986 centered on a Bomber defense that only surrendered 9.6 points per game.
Notably, Kenston then-senior Darryl Wodecki was a first-team all-state defensive end in 1986, not to mention he led the Bombers with 24 catches for 360 yards and three touchdowns as a tight end.
Wodecki now lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina, but he was in town to see his alma mater put a 42-14 hurting on Riverside in week seven, and he receives text updates from the elder Sotera throughout the season.
“My best friends in life came from that ’86 team,” Wodecki said. “As you know, I played for a national championship team at Notre Dame after high school. I have my closest friends from those high school and college teams. And that’s what you’re playing for. You’re not playing for anything else but the people in that room, and you’re looking out for them, and they’re looking out for you. If you can do that, you’re going to be pretty successful.”
Coming off a 5-5 season from 1985, Kenston opened 1986 with a 16-7 loss against Mayfield, before winning its next five games and going on to finish the regular season at 8-2 and earn the third spot in the Region 9 computer rankings.
The 1986 Bombers had nail-biter wins against Solon, 17-14, Chardon, 13-6, and Orange, 13-6, in week 10, to punch their program’s second ticket to the postseason, with the first coming in 1981.
“There was no social media and nothing where you could see how the computer points were going,” the elder Sotera said. “That was off our radar. We were just playing to win the Chagrin Valley Conference back then. The last week of the season we ended up getting into the playoffs, but it wasn’t something we looked at. We weren’t even thinking playoffs back then until we got the invite.”
The Solon game, in particular, was an overtime affair, when the 1986 Bombers played against Dave Miller, whose son, Ryan Miller, is now starting as a 6-foot-5 freshman tight end for Kenston.
“There’s certain games that stick in mind better than others, but that was definitely one of them,” said Darrin Kresevec, who was a junior left tackle and nose guard for Kenston in 1986. Kresevec now lives in Solon, but he attended all four of Kenston’s playoff games this year.
“Playing physical football in the trenches was just different back then, because that’s all we knew,” Kresevec said. “I want to say nine of us went both ways, and that’s not something you see as often anymore. But I see guys like Tyler Mintz still going both ways, and he’s impressive. That (Bransen) Stanley boy is really darn gone good, too.”
As the wins started to pile up in 1986, the attraction to Kenston football became contagious, Wodecki said. The Bombers’ first-round playoff game, in particular, drew 6,000 fans that year.
“Not just the team and the school, but the entire community got together, and it was like a big snowball,” Wodecki said. “Every week we won, it got bigger and bigger. And by the time we got to the state championship week, I remember there being signs all over the place in Bainbridge and Auburn and wishing us luck, ‘Go Bombers.’”
Kenston only had two home games in 1986, and they were both played at West Geauga, because the Bombers’ field was under renovation.
The road-warrior mentality drove the Bombers to a 24-21 win against an unbeaten Garfield Heights Trinity team in the first round of the playoffs at Byers Field in Parma, where then-junior Ken McClintock scored a 9-yard touchdown run, senior Andy Gurd scored on 9- and 64-yard runs and Wodecki split the uprights from 30 yards out for the game-winner with 1:25 remaining.
McClintock, who led the 1986 Bombers with 196 carries for 1,325 yards and nine touchdowns in a power-run game with two tight ends as a junior that year, said he’s been to three Kenston games this season.
“There’s no comparison,” McClintock said about the 1986 and 2018 Bombers. “Shoot, they throw the ball whenever they want. We threw the ball only when we had to. And even when had to, we didn’t throw the ball half the time. But they’re fun to watch.
“The thing that was different back then was, we had Andy Gurd at fullback, Tony Rhea was at halfback, Mike Dinallo at quarterback – I mean, all four of us ran the ball. It wasn’t just me. And I think anybody who ran the ball averaged over 5 yards a carry.”
McClintock would continue his career at the University of Minnesota, while Gurd and first-team all-Ohio linebacker Judah Herman, who was a junior in 1986, would go on to play at Ohio State University.
Kenston’s 1986 team went on to defeat Campbell Memorial, 21-7, with a pair of touchdown runs by Gurd and a touchdown run by then-junior Dinallo in the regional title game at Mollenkopf Stadium in Warren.
Herman, who now lives in the Cincinnati area, said he traveled back to Warren to see the 2018 Bombers win their regional championship against Canfield at Mollenkopf Stadium. And he also streamed a few other games to watch on his tablet, he said.
Herman said he plans to attend Friday’s state title game.
“Although Kenston runs a spread offense now, they’re still about lining up and winning the battle on the line of scrimmage, and that’s kind of what we did,” Herman said. “We would try to push people around up front. And on defense, they definitely pursue the ball really well and look for turnovers, which are things we stood for.
“And one thing I really liked about our team is we kept on improving and improving, and that continued through the playoffs. I don’t think anybody gave us a chance in the first couple playoff games we played.”
Advancing to the state semifinal game at the Akron Rubber Bowl, the 1986 Bombers faced a 21-10 deficit against St. Clairsville at halftime, before McClintock scored a touchdown in the third quarter and Dinallo punched in the game-winner on a 1-yard keeper with less than a minute to play for the 22-21 victory.
“They had a first-and-goal with four minutes to go in the game, and we stopped them two times on the 1-yard line and then went 99 yards in the last 3 1/2 minutes to win the game,” said linebacker Herman, who played a pivotal role in stopping St. Clairsville running back John Spencer, who would later become his teammate at Ohio State.
While Dinallo was primarily a running quarterback, he also completed 39 of 77 passes for 653 yards and nine touchdowns that season.
Now living in Aurora, Dinallo said he’s been to every Kenston game except for two this year. He will be rooting on the Bombers in person on Friday in Canton.
“We were the first team to go to state for Kenston, and now we’re hoping these guys can close the deal out – third time’s a charm,” Dinallo said. “This team is about as well-prepared of team I’ve seen at the high school level. I was involved with scouting and video-editing software in 2003, ’04, ’05 and ’06.
“And I was in the locker room before the last game, and just the attention to detail, the direction these coaches give the kids and their willingness to listen and get coached up, I’ve been really impressed. So, it kind of brings you back to ’86 a little bit just being a part of that.”
Thirty-two years ago, the Bombers got paper scouting reports with then-head coach Paul Koballa and his staff doing their best to analyze VHS tapes to find run and pass tendencies on down and distance, Dinallo said.
Kresevec said sometimes the 1986 coaching staff would lose its patience with the Bombers because of their easy-going character.
“We were a pretty laid-back team,” he said. “It was just a group of guys that just gelled and played very well together. We were pretty laid back, but, as soon as we stepped on the field, we knew what had to be done. Each game we played we just felt like we had the talent and knew we had the opportunity to win every game.”
In the state championship game against defending champion CAPE, the Bomber defense surrendered a 5-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter and trailed, 7-0, for the majority of the defensive struggle.
But Kenston’s defense did keep future Ohio State running back Carlos Snow out of the end zone, before he went on to rush for 2,974 yards in four seasons for the Buckeyes.
“I think Carolos Snow was the No. 1-rated running back in the country coming out of high school, and they were putting 50 points on everybody they played,” Herman said. “So, that was a hell of a defensive effort that day to hold that team to seven points.
“But I knocked Snow out of the game. It’s a true story. I knocked him out of the game. He was a year older than me, and then, when I showed up at Ohio State, he pointed his finger at me in the locker room like, ‘I remember you.’ He goes, ‘That was the hardest I’ve ever been hit in high school.’”
The 1986 Bombers put a scoring drive together in the fourth quarter, with quarterback Dinallo capping it off with a 4-yard waggle run for a touchdown, but the ensuing extra-point kick was blocked and Kenston lost, 7-6.
“They ended up blocking our extra point,” Dinallo said. “Their center, No. 53, blocked it. And that was the final score, 7-6.”
While the opportunity to play in a state title game was great, the loss is still a tough pill to swallow, Herman said.
“I’ve lost very close games to Michigan with the Rose Bowl on the line, and those losses and the loss in the state championship are the same to me,” he said. “But, when I look back on high school, I usually remember the pleasant memories and what we accomplished. It’s still frustrating we weren’t able to get it done, but it’s 32 years later, and you have to let it go.”
Herman said he told the 2018 Bombers don’t be content with just getting to the title game, because they’re good enough to win it.
Dinallo said the same.
“This year’s Kenston team is prepared and as motivated as any football team,” he said. “My prediction is they take this team down.”
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