NEW PHILADELPHIA—With a 44-0 win over Nelsonville-York in Friday’s Division VI state semifinal at Woody Hayes Quaker Stadium, the Kirtland Hornets will play in their sixth state championship game in the last seven years.
The Hornets won state titles in 2011, 2013 and 2015 and finished as the runner-up in 2012 and 2014. They lost in the regional championship game last fall.
“This is totally new kids from a couple of years ago,” said head coach Tiger LaVerde. “To see these kids accomplish their goals, because the other teams, those guys had goals too, but this is new for these kids. To see these guys do what they’ve worked hard for is really, really cool. It’s fun to spend another week with these kids. We always talk about that. They’re nice kids, good students, good kids in the community and I get to spend another week with them. I’m very blessed.”
LaVerde and the Hornets were tasked with shutting down a balanced Nelsonville-York attack that averaged 35.92 points per game through the first 13 weeks of the season.
The Buckeyes moved into the red zone just one time and even then the Hornet defense forced a fumble that was recovered by Joey Torok to end the threat.
“The defense, you’ve got to give them a lot of credit,” LaVerde said. “They’ve really pitched two shutouts back-to-back. Last week, that last touchdown, it was 4th-and-17 and the kid made a play, but really defensively the last two weeks the kids have done a good job.”
Kirtland’s defense was tested early.
The Hornets forced a quick three-and-out on the Buckeyes’ first possession of the game but fumbled away the punt near midfield. Nelsonville-York moved the ball to the Kirtland 45 but couldn’t convert on 4th-and-2.
Jake Neibecker, who ran for a game-high 174 yards on 20 carries, set up Kirtland’s first score with a 47-yard run to the Nelsonville-York 10. Dylan Fulco finished off the drive with a 1-yard plunge and Dylan Aquila added the extra point to give the Hornets a 7-0 lead with 2:27 left in the first quarter.
Torok’s 39-yard run on 4th-and-6 set up the Hornets’ next score, a 2-yard run by Fulco, that gave the Hornets a 14-0 lead with 4:15 left in the half.
Aquila made it 17-0 with his 41-yard field goal as time expired.
That kick and his 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter helped Aquila shake off that early fumbled punt.
“I always tell the rest of my team, you’ve got to keep our heads up even if you mess up,” Aquila said. “We’re going to make mistakes out here so the best thing we can do is come back from it. It sends a message to our team and the other team that we’re not giving up no matter what happens.”
The Hornets opened the third quarter with another touchdown drive, capped by a 20-yard pass from Fulco to Ryan Lipps.
Kirtland scored touchdowns on all four of its second half possessions.
“We talked about that at halftime,” LaVerde said of the second half finish. “It was the same against Rootstown when we were up 10-0. Against Rootstown we came out and scored and we did it again tonight. That kind of takes the wind out of their sails.”
Neibecker added a 15-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to make it 31-0. Aquila’s score pushed the lead to 37-0 and Mason Sullivan ran for a 41-yard touchdown late in the fourth to close out the scoring.
“It’s awesome,” Neibecker said of returning to the state finals. “We’ve just been working hard all year. Our coaches prepare us so well with scouting reports and all that. We knew what they wanted to do and we worked on it in practice and got after it and shut them down.”
Kirtland (14-0) will play Maria Stein Marion Local (14-0) at Tom Benson Stadium in Canton at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday for the Division VI title.
The Hornets defeated the Flyers in the 2015 championship game, 22-20.