Published in The Chagrin Valley Times
November 29, 2018
After Kenston’s offense put six on the board, the moment of truth was in the hands of its defense when Eastmoor Academy drove to the red zone in the Division III state semifinals on Friday night in New Philadelphia.
Would the AP No. 4-ranked Bombers (13-1) buckle down and close off the end zone midway through the first quarter, or would the No. 7 Eastmoor gridders (12-2) from Columbus march on and induce an offensive slugfest in front of a packed house at Woody Hayes Memorial Stadium?
Eastmoor had a fresh set of downs at the 17-yard line, but Kenston senior linebacker Matt Iklodi held the Warriors to a 1-yard gain, junior linebacker Logan Vargo had a pass breakup, Iklodi tackled a scrambling Marquise Laster for a 7-yard loss, and then senior defensive tackle Mitch Sotera sacked Laster for a 9-yard loss on fourth down.
“We just played disciplined, blue-D football – tough, physical football, did our jobs, read our keys and played the best football we can,” Iklodi said. “We understand teams are going to get a couple yards on us. We understand big plays are going to happen sometimes, but our motto is bend, don’t break. Don’t let them score. Do everything we can not to let them score. Win first down, win third down.”
Kenston’s defense held Eastmoor to just 198 yards and nine first downs, keeping the Warriors out of the end zone until 52 seconds remained in the game for the 40-7 Bomber victory. Kenston secured its third state championship appearance and first in 23 years.
The 33-point margin of victory was Kenston’s second largest this season. Only a 37-0 shutout against West Geauga in week three was more decisive.
“Hey, I’m going to say this right now,” seventh-year head coach Jeff Grubich said in the postgame huddle. “Congratulations. You just punched your ticket to the ‘ship, man.”
The Kenston gridders and community members who led a caravan down Interstate 77 that evening let out roars and cheers.
“To the ship! Championship week, man,” Grubich said. “This is what you set your goals on. This is what we’ve been working for the last four years in this program. These guys have done it. And now we’re going.
“And I’ll tell you what, this community – you see that crowd out there tonight? How about that crowd? How about that 12th man? Those guys drove two hours to come down here and support the Bombers. Hey, they’re on the train, man. They’re on the train. And that train’s coming downhill. Go ahead, give me a ‘choo-choo.’”
That train got rolling on the Bombers’ opening possession, when junior running back Jack Porter had five carries for 62 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown run, when he broke an ankle tackle at the 10-yard line and found pay dirt for a 6-0 lead three minutes into the game.
It was Kenston’s third straight game scoring a touchdown on the opening drive.
“We were hungry,” Kenston senior left tackle George Sell said. “We just wanted to score on that first drive. We preached all week we wanted to score on that very first drive. We knew they were fast, but we just had one goal in mind: doing our job and just focus on what we need to do.”
Then, after that red-zone defense of Iklodi, Vargo and Sotera turned the Warriors over on downs, Kenston went 68 yards on 11 plays, highlighted by a 12-yard screen pass from junior quarterback Jon Tomcufcik to Porter and a 15-yard reception by senior Bransen Stanley on a slant route to overcome a second-and-21 shot in the foot.
Tomcufcik then used his feet on 16- and 10-yard quarterback keeps to move the chains, before the signal-caller punched in a 4-yard touchdown run for a 13-0 upper hand with one minute to go in the opening frame.
“I mean, it all started with our offensive line,” Tomcufcik said. “They did a fantastic job creating holes for me and Jack. I mean, I love those guys to death. They’re amazing.”
An Eastmoor defense that was touted for its pass rush following a 20-14 win against Thornville Sheridan the previous week didn’t get one sack on Tomcufcik, who was protected by Sell, fellow senior tackle Alex Robarge, senior center Brandon Schroeder and junior guards Jeremiah Jones and Justin Schroeder.
Not to mention, the run game was motoring all night for the Bombers, who finished with 328 yards rushing. Porter had 26 carries for 183 yards and two touchdowns, while Tomcufcik had 13 carries for 107 yards and three touchdowns.
After Kenston’s defense forced Eastmoor to three-and-out punts on the Warriors’ next two possessions, thanks to a third-down tackle by Sotera and a near pick by Stanley, Kenston’s offense went back to work with Tomcufcik scoring a 16-yard touchdown run courtesy of an Oscar-award fake by Porter for a 20-0 upper hand with 5:26 to go in the half.
“I mean, he’s a great running back,” Tomcufcik said. “He’s an all-state running back, and he’s a great decoy, because everyone thinks he’s getting the ball, and then I pull it, and it’s an open lane for me.”
Kenston’s defense then forced another three-and-out, with senior defensive back Dorion Talley breaking up a pass on first down and junior defensive back Tyler Mintz breaking up a pass on third down, to provide their offense a 58-yard field.
Four snaps later, Tomcufcik found himself in the pocket with no open targets during a broken pass play and decided to tuck the pigskin on third down. A 42-yard end-zone find down the left sideline was the result for a 26-0 lead with 2:43 left in the half.
“All I remember on that play, honestly, is just pass protecting,” left tackle Sell said. “And then I see Jonny taking off, and so I just started running up the field, and Jonny is smoking, 20, 10, 5, and then he scores a touchdown. I mean, it was awesome.”
It was Tomcufcik’s second-longest run of the season.
“I mean, my coaches, they always call me slow,” Tomcufcik said and laughed. “But it felt good to get in the open and show what I could do. It’s one of the first times I got in the open, and it felt great. It was awesome for momentum.”
Kenston senior defensive back Nick Franklin then picked off a Warrior pass to keep them at zero for intermission.
To open the third quarter, Eastmoor put together a drive down to the Bomber 29, but linebacker Iklodi treated himself to an interception.
“We like to think when we’re up on teams at halftime, they’re going to try everything they’ve got,” Iklodi said. “And that first drive is the most important drive. So, if we stop them on that first drive, we can keep rolling.”
Keep rolling the Bombers did.
Going 84 yards on 11 plays, Porter scored an 8-yard touchdown run to enact a running clock, 33-0, with 2:15 left in the third quarter.
Porter had three more carries for 52 yards in the fourth quarter, before sophomore running back Stanley Sell came in and got three carries for 17 yards with a 1-yard touchdown to provide the Bombers a 40-0 lead with 2:55 remaining.
Other than a 42-7 win by Division II Archbishop Hoban against Avon, Kenston’s 40-7 triumph was the second-largest margin of victory in state semifinals action this past week.
Up next, the Bombers will take on AP No. 1-ranked Kettering Archbishop Alter (13-1) in the Division III state championship at 3 p.m. Friday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
“We’re all just a family,” Iklodi said. “We’ve got tons of fans out here who all drove over two hours to get here. We all have been playing football together for our whole lives and all been dreaming about this moment. We’ve all been waiting for this. So, we put the work in more than any other team. We work harder than any other team. It starts all the way back in January, and now we’re ready.”
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