Off­sea­son grind worth it for Hor­nets

The News Herald (Willoughby, OH) - - Sports -

Char­ac­ter, they say, is do­ing the right thing when no one else is watch­ing.

It was a cold morn­ing in more ways than one on Sun­day, Dec. 3, 2017, at 9150 Chilli­cothe Road, home of the Kirt­land Hor­nets. Many, if not most, of the peo­ple in town were still in a win­ter slumber the morn­ing af­ter their foot­ball team ab­sorbed a 3411 loss to Marion Lo­cal in the 2017 Divi­sion VI state cham­pi­onship game.

But if you lis­tened hard enough, a fa­mil­iar sound could have been heard echo­ing off the north­west cor­ner of Rogers Field.

The cold sound of metal on metal.

Coach Tiger LaVerde re­minded his team of that be­fore the Hor­nets took the field for a re­match with Marion Lo­cal on Nov. 30 in the 2018 ti­tle clash.

“Lis­ten. This is it, man,” LaVerde said. “A year ago it didn’t go our way, and the next day you guys were in the weight room. You haven’t worked hard four years for noth­ing.”

Fi­nal score: Kirt­land 16, Marion Lo­cal 7. Mis­sion ac­com­plished. But this mis­sion just didn’t hap­pen be­tween 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 30.

This mis­sion was a year­long quest, start­ing with the early-morn­ing hours on Dec. 3, 2017, when dozens of play­ers hurt­ing both phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally from the pre­vi­ous day’s loss in the state cham­pi­onship game got back to work.

Sure, it would have been easy to sleep in.

It would have been nat­u­ral to take a few days — if not weeks — to lick the phys­i­cal and emo­tional wounds from what LaVerde termed mul­ti­ple times “a whoopin.’”

It would have been easy to take the easy way out.

That’s not Kirt­land’s style.

That’s not why the Hor­nets have played in seven state cham­pi­onship games since 2011, win­ning four of them. That’s not why the Hor­nets are an un­fath­omable 159-17 in LaVerde’s dec­o­rated ten­ure.

“We wanted to get back to work,” se­nior Jack Bai­ley said. “We NEEDED to get back to work.”

That work was ev­i­dent in the Hor­nets’ nine-point win over Marion Lo­cal that in many ways wasn’t as close as the score would in­di­cate.

The Hor­nets out­gained the Fly­ers, 332-228.

Kirt­land ran for 303 yards, com­pared to 41 for Marion Lo­cal.

The Hor­nets had the ball for nearly twice as long as the Fly­ers did, en­joy­ing a time-of-possession ad­van­tage of 35:23to-18:37.

It’s safe to say last year’s game was in their mind ev­ery step of the way.

Af­ter all, “34-11” — the score of last year’s game — has hung in the Kirt­land weight room ever since that game.

“It’s still there,” Bai­ley said. “And it will prob­a­bly stay there. That will re­mind teams to come how hard they have to work to be a cham­pi­onship team.”

The mental snap­shots from the state cham­pi­onship game will last a life­time for the Hor­nets, in­clud­ing, but not lim­ited to:

• Tommy Pow­ers, who missed last sea­son with mul­ti­ple tears in the labrum of his left shoul­der, re­peat­edly low­er­ing said shoul­der in run­ning the ball more times (17) than in any other game this sea­son.

• Luke Gard­ner win­ning a sprint to the cor­ner of the end zone on a never-been-seen play from the Hor­nets’ play­book that gave Kirt­land a 13-7 half­time lead.

• Kirt­land’s mas­sive of­fen­sive line pound­ing away for short gains, af­ter which Marion Lo­cal de­fend­ers got up slowly. Said 6-6, 320-pound Kalid Alabsi on the side­line to his team­mates, “Keep pound­ing them. They’re wear­ing down. I can feel it.”

• Con­nor Gron com­ing up with big play af­ter big play in the sec­ondary against taller Marion Lo­cal re­ceivers. Af­ter get­ting his first ca­reer in­ter­cep­tion in the state semi­fi­nal against Fort Frye, Gron got No. 2 against Marion Lo­cal.

• Bai­ley bust­ing through for a blocked field goal late in the game that would have brought Marion Lo­cal within one score.

• The un­for­tu­nate heartache of se­nior Joey Torok, who wasn’t able to fin­ish the game be­cause of a con­cus­sion he ab­sorbed on a hard hit in the sec­ond half that left Torok seven yards short of the all-time rush­ing record in his school.

And the most last­ing mental im­age of them all — the Hor­nets tak­ing one last snap from the vic­tory for­ma­tion and then spilling onto the field in cel­e­bra­tion af­ter ex­or­cis­ing a ghost from the pre­vi­ous year’s loss.

Prior to the game, LaVerde fired up his team like few oth­ers can.

“This is what you wanted. You wanted that team in the other locker room,” LaVerde said, his fo­cused play­ers nod­ding in af­fir­ma­tion.

Af­ter re­mind­ing his play­ers that “big play­ers make big plays in big games,” LaVerde’s ex­cite­ment boiled over.

“Let’s go frickin’ have some fun,” he said, clap­ping his hands em­phat­i­cally. The Hor­nets did that. All the work — work that be­gan in the wee hours of the morn­ing on Dec. 3, 2017 — was worth it. The gold tro­phy that will for­ever sit in the school’s tro­phy cab­i­net will at­test to that.

Kampf can be reached via email at [email protected]­ald.com; On Twit­ter: @JKBuck­eyes and @NHPreps

NEWS-HER­ALD FILE

Kirt­land line­man An­drew De­Marco hugs a coach af­ter the Hor­nets’ 16-7 win over Marion Lo­cal in the Divi­sion VI state ti­tle game Nov. 30.

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