Saturday, September 30, 2023

Hornets win fourth state title since 2011

CANTON—Defending Division VI state champion Marion Local made some big plays in Friday’s title game against Kirtland at Tom Benson Stadium.

The Hornets countered each one and pulled out a 16-7 win to claim the school’s fourth state championship since 2011. Kirtland also avenged last year’s 34-11 loss to Marion Local in the state championship game.

“It feels awesome,” Kirtland senior Jake Neibecker said. “Ever since that first state title in 2011, that became the standard around here. That’s what everyone wanted to achieve. Last year, we made a run at it and didn’t get it. We geared up in the offseason, ready to come back and take another shot at it and our hard work paid off.”

Kirtland, who completed a perfect 15-0 season, struck first when Neibecker scored on a one-yard run to open the second quarter.

The Hornets took over on their own 45 after stopping the Flyers on 4th-and-3. Neibecker scored eight plays later and Mario Rodin added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.

Marion Local (13-2) responded with a 10-play, 65-yard drive capped by Brandon Fleck’s one-yard run that tied the score with 9:15 left in the first half.

Both teams traded punts and the Hornets took the lead for good when Luke Gardner ran for a seven-yard touchdown with 1:22 left in the half. The Hornets drove 67 yards on 14 plays and chewed up nearly eight minutes of clock in pushing their lead to 13-7.

The Flyers quickly drove down the field but Connor Gron picked off Nathan Bruns’ pass in the end zone to protect Kirtland’s lead at the break.

Kirtland forced Marion Local to punt on its first drive of the third quarter and the Hornets took possession at the Flyers’ 45.

Joey Torok ran for 25 yards on first down but the Hornets settled for Rodin’s 32-yard field goal to push their lead to 16-7 with 9:17 left in the third.

That proved to be the final points either team would score.

“If you would have told me we hold them to 16, I thought we would win,” Marion Local coach Tim Goodwin said. “We just couldn’t put the ball in the end zone.”

Kirtland’s next drive ended when the Hornets came up short on a 4th-and-3 at the Marion Local 12. The Flyers then suffered the same fate when they reached the Kirtland red zone.

Bruns threw incomplete on 4th-and-4 at the Kirtland 12 but a punt block set the Flyers up at the Kirtland 20 with 9:03 remaining in the game.

The Flyers ran six plays before setting up for an 18-yard field goal at the Kirtland 1.

“That goal line stand, that’s going to be one I remember for a long time,” Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde said. “We held them on three plays from the three and then Jack Bailey blocked the field goal. That right there was the defining moment.”

Bailey, who is listed on the Kirtland roster as standing 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, needed just his elbow to protect the Hornet lead.

“I wasn’t even supposed to block it,” Bailey said. “I was supposed to take the guard out and the backer goes right up through and I just kind of squeezed through and put my hand up and it hit me right in the elbow.”

Kirtland took over possession at its own 25 and ran out the remaining 6:33 to clinch the state title.

“The fuel is we were humbled (last year),” LaVerde said of his team redeeming itself after last year’s title game loss to Marion Local. “They whipped us. It was pretty lopsided. When you get knocked down, you have two choices. You can get up and fight and go to work every day, which these kids did. These kids fought and they clawed and they scratched to get back here.”

Kirtland ran for 303 yards on 63 carries while limiting Marion Local to just 41 yards on 21 rushes. The Flyers did throw for 187 yards but limited Marion Local’s big-play potential through the air.

Neibecker finished the day with 107 yards on 17 carries and Torok finished with 90 yards on 17 touches and he also caught two passes for 24 yards. Tommy Powers completed all three of his passes for 29 yards and he added 70 yards on the ground.

Torok finished his career with 483 carries for 4,708 yards and 62 touchdowns. He came up just two yards short of Craig Svendsen’s school-record for career rushing yards but he’s happy to settle for the state title as a parting gift.

“After last year’s loss, we were all embarrassed,” Torok said. “We are the ones that are usually winning by 30-plus points and to be on the losing side of that was embarrassing. We made it our goal to win this year. We were hoping we could get another matchup with Marion Local so that we could get another shot at them. The game was awesome. We were all so pumped up and played hard. This game means so much to myself and the other seniors. To play our last game ever in the state championship and win, that’s as good as it gets.”

Steve Hare
Steve Hare is the Chagrin Valley Conference's Sports Information Director. He also created and publishes, an online publication dedicated to providing hyperlocal coverage to area high school athletic programs. Hare began covering high school sports for the Lake County News Herald in 1997. Hare attended Willoughby South High School through the middle of his senior year, then graduated from Berkshire High School in Burton in 1986. He played football, wrestled and was an all-Geauga county baseball player (1986). He lives in Chardon with his wife Paulette and their children.

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