NEW ALBANY—Kirtland made the big plays down the stretch to defeat a scrappy Lucasville Valley team, 28-7, in a Division VI state semifinal at Veterans Stadium on Friday.
The Hornets, who improved to 14-0 this season and have won 29 straight games, led 14-0 at halftime then responded to Valley’s fourth quarter score with 14 unanswered points to punch their ticket to their fourth straight state championship game.
“These guys, they just find a way to win,” said Kirtland head coach Tiger LaVerde, who led the Hornets to state titles in 2011 and 2013 and a runner-up finish in 2012. “That’s a good ball club. They’re physical and they did a nice job against our run.”
Kirtland won the toss and elected to receive.
That strategy paid off as Sam Skiljan scored on a 5-yard run to cap a 13-play, 61-yard drive that chewed up nearly six minutes of the first quarter.
Valley threatened to tie the game but the Hornets held on a 4th-and-2 at their 31 then drove 68 yards for another touchdown, this one a 1-yard run by Adam Hess that made it 14-0.
The Indians mounted another attack but again they came up short in Kirtland territory just before the end of the first half.
“We scored on the very first drive and the rest of the game it was tough sledding,” LaVerde said. “We had a drive right before the half that was big and punched it in then held them right before the half. They got to the 8-yard line and we got a sack.”
Kirtland went for the kill in the second half.
The Hornets recovered their own onside kick attempt at the Valley 39 but the Indians took over when Kirtland failed to convert on a fourth down try.
Valley finally got on the board when Alex Loop punched it in from 1-yard out on fourth down to cut Kirtland’s lead to 14-7 with 8:22 left in the game.
That’s when Skiljan and Jacob Boyd connected on the play of the game.
With the momentum shifting to the Valley sideline the Hornets faced a 3rd-and-10 from their own 40. Skiljan threw a screen pass to Boyd along the right sideline. Boyd used a stutter step to make one defender miss and he darted 18 yards for a key first down.
Hess scored on a 30-yard run four plays later to make it 21-7.
“Our guys responded,” LaVerde said. “That was a big play to Jacob Boyd to get a first down. They stuffed us twice and they had the momentum. We might have had to punt but Skiljan hit him out there and he made a nice play to get 14 or 15 yards. That was probably the key play of the game.”
Trailing by two scores, the Indians were forced to go to the air and the Hornets picked off back-to-back passes.
Matt Grazia snagged the first one and Skiljan threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Matthew Finkler to make it 28-7. Evan Madden then picked off a pass to end the game.
“That was a good finish,” LaVerde said. “Once we got it to 21-7, the big thing was getting up two touchdowns, that forced them to throw it. They had had some success running the ball on us.”
Kirtland outgained Valley, 297-175, and held an 11-minute advantage in time of possession. But, it was Kirtland’s ability to limit the big plays and protect the football that was the difference in the game.
“You get to this late in the year, the team that has the least amount of turnovers usually wins,” LaVerde said. “I was very happy we didn’t turn it over. We always say don’t give up any big plays and don’t turn it over. We didn’t give up any giant plays, we made them earn it, and we didn’t turn it over. I think that’s why we’re still playing.”
With the win, Kirtland advanced to the Division VI state championship game against Minster at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. The game will be played on Friday, Dec. 5 at 3:00 p.m.
“It’s going to be awesome,” LaVerde said. “It’s a thrill for the kids and a different experience for us. All year we thought, ‘Man if we could do that it would be a cool thing.’ We’re very excited to be able to continue playing.”