Bombers took town on heck of a ride

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

In the movie “Hoosiers,” be­fore the team takes the court for the state cham­pi­onship game, Merle says he wants to win for all those teams who had never got­ten there be­fore.

When the Hick­ory Huskers pulled off the up­set over the top-ranked team in the state, it wasn’t just a cause for cel­e­bra­tion. It was a win for the ages.

Such was the script for the 2018 Ken­ston foot­ball team.

Twice in pro­gram his­tory, Ken­ston had ad­vanced to the state cham­pi­onship game, only to be turned away both times. The 1986 Bombers lost to CAPE, 7-6, in the cham­pi­onship game, while the 1995 team lost to Clyde, 3-0, in its ti­tle bout.

The bit­ter taste of los­ing two state cham­pi­onship games by a to­tal of four points lin­gered.

So when the 2018 Bombers took to the field for the Divi­sion III state cham­pi­onship game against top-ranked Ket­ter­ing Al­ter at Tom Ben­son Hall of Fame Sta­dium in Can­ton, they did so armed with the dreams of a town starv­ing for their time in the sun.

Ken­ston foot­ball had “been there” be­fore.

Thanks to a 42-6 win over Al­ter, they can now add the “done that” part to their foot­ball pro­gram’s ledger.

Ken­ston is now a “Been there, done that” pro­gram.

And the 2018 Bombers won one for those teams that hadn’t got­ten there — to the cham­pi­onship level — be­fore.

“Man, that was some­thing,” said Coach Jeff Gru­bich, clutch­ing the state cham­pi­onship tro­phy near mid­field, turn­ing in a cir­cle and soak­ing in the cel­e­bra­tory hoopla around him.

The whole ride was “some­thing.”

Four years prior, the Ken­ston foot­ball team was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some hard times. Af­ter de­part­ing the Cha­grin Val­ley Con­fer­ence, the Bombers strug­gled through a pair of rough sea­sons in the up­start West­ern Re­serve Con­fer­ence.

In the first two years in the WRC, Ken­ston went 3-7 and 2-8.

That means this year’s se­niors and ju­niors went 5-15 in their first two years of high school foot­ball.

That type of mis­for­tune can be crip­pling to a foot­ball pro­gram. Putting in the time, the sum­mer weight-lift­ing ses­sions, and the ded­i­ca­tion to a pro­gram can be dif­fi­cult when re­sults aren’t seen on the field.

But this team — this pro­gram — was dif­fer­ent. It started at the top. “It all starts with Coach Gru­bich,” said Dar­rin Sotera, fa­ther of Ken­ston se­nior de­fen­sive line­man Mitch Sotera. “You should see these kids when Grube talks to them. All eyes are on him. They lis­ten to him. They trust him. They’ll run through a wall for him.”

But mostly, the Bombers trusted the process Gru­bich and his staff placed be­fore them, even if the process only gleaned a 5-15 record in 2015-2016.

If any­thing, 2017 only stoked the fire. Go­ing 8-2 and miss­ing out on the play­offs by three-tenths of a point left the Bombers an­gry, hun­gry and mo­ti­vated.

Thus was born this year’s mantras — “Vengeance .3” and “The Chase.”

Armed with a cut­ting edge coach who is a mas­ter mo­ti­va­tor and a hun­gry team that had fi­nally got a taste of suc­cess, the Bombers em­barked on the 2018 sea­son know­ing how close to great­ness they were.

The of­fense? It de­prived de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tors around the area of sleep try­ing to fig­ure out how to stop the Bombers.

Run­ning back Jack Porter was back to build on the first-team All-Ohio hon­ors he won as a sopho­more.

Quar­ter­back Jon Tom­cuf­cik had a mag­nif­i­cent skill set back, in­clud­ing Bransen Stan­ley, Tyler Mintz, Jay Mid­dle­ton and Ryan Miller. And that big, phys­i­cal of­fen­sive line, an­chored by tack­les Alex Ro­barge and Ge­orge Sell, just hated any­one lay­ing a finger on their boys in the back­field.

De­fen­sively, the Bombers had to deal with the pre­sea­son in­jury to start­ing line­backer Sam Ley­graaf, but the ath­leti­cism and depth shone all year long. From Matt Ik­lodi to Joe Stau­den­baur to Lo­gan Vargo on down the line, the play­mak­ers were there.

And a kick­ing game that had let down the pro­gram in years past was so­lid­i­fied and an­chored by a fe­male — Anna San­ders — who went on to be­come the first girl in state his­tory to score in a state cham­pi­onship game.

Just like its mas­cot name­sake, Ken­ston de­stroyed ev­ery­thing in its path, av­er­ag­ing more than 400 yards and 40 points per game.

The only blip on the radar was a one-point loss to Chardon late in the sea­son that might have helped re­di­rect the Bombers.

Come the post­sea­son, vir­tu­ally ev­ery game was a blowout.

In­clud­ing the state cham­pi­onship game, a game in which many felt the Bombers would again be left want­ing, much like they had in 1986 and 1995.

As the fi­nal min­utes ticked off the clock, Gru­bich shed the head­set he wears dur­ing the games, and walked down the side­line to shake hands with and hug count­less well-wish­ers, alumni and school of­fi­cials.

Quar­ter­backs coach Ge­orge Gresko turned his iPhone to­ward to the mas­sive crowd of sup­port­ers that seem­ingly in­cluded ev­ery liv­ing soul in the Cha­grin Falls and Bain­bridge area, and he video taped the cel­e­bra­tion.

Play­ers hugged, cried, and soaked it in.

“I’ve wanted this ev­ery year of my life. I wanted so much to get that ring for my dad,” said Mitch Sotera, eyes a lit­tle damp from emo­tion, not­ing that his fa­ther played on the 1986 team that lost its state dream by one point.

The cel­e­bra­tion on the field lasted long. Play­ers hugged. Par­ents took pho­tos. Play­ers shared in the cel­e­bra­tion with their class­mates who made the trip to watch the game.

It was cer­tainly “One for the ages.”

Just like the movie “Hoosiers,” the 2018 Bombers won one for those teams who had never got­ten there be­fore.

For that, their names are for­ever etched in Ken­ston his­tory.

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

NEWS-HER­ALD FILE

Ken­ston coach Jeff Gru­bich and school su­per­in­ten­dent Nancy San­tilli en­joy the Divi­sion III state cham­pi­onship tro­phy Nov. 30.

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