Offseason grind worth it for Hornets
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
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.