Bombers took town on heck of a ride
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
Kenston coach Jeff Grubich and school superintendent Nancy Santilli enjoy the Division III state championship trophy Nov. 30.