SOLON—Rootstown entered Friday’s Division VI, Region 21 championship game at Stewart Field with a perfect 12-0 record as well as the Northeast Inland District’s Coach, Offensive Player and Defensive Player of the Year award winners.
Kirtland suited up for the game with a similar record and a defense that had something to prove after a shaky outing the week before in the regional semifinals.
On paper, Rootstown could have been considered the heavy favorite, but between the lines it was the Hornets who earned a 17-7 win and a sixth trip to the state semifinals in seven seasons.
“At this point in the year, it’s just survive and advance,” said Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde. “That was a really good team that had a nice season. They had a good punter and a good quarterback and a good line. They have physical linebackers. This is a good win for our kids. That’s a tough team that we just beat.”
Kirtland’s victory started on defense where the Hornets held standout running back Caleb Kaut to just 21 yards on 14 carries. Kaut entered the game averaging nearly 250 yards per contest with 34 touchdowns in 12 games.
The Hornets also blocked a punt, recovered a fumbled punt and Jake Neibecker picked off a third-quarter pass to stop another Rootstown drive in Kirtland territory.
“I thought your defense did a nice job,” LaVerde said. “First, it was stopping the run. They get that kid going and the play action works. We got them in a bunch of third and longs and kind of forced them to throw. We got a little heat on the quarterback and that helped and got a couple of turnovers. The defense was just outstanding.”
Rootstown’s offensive struggles began early as Kirtland recorded a sack and tackle for loss on the Rovers’ first offensive possession.
The Hornets then drove 70 yards on 14 plays and took a 3-0 lead on Dylan Aquila’s 23-yard field goal.
Logan Carpenter’s punt was then blocked and the Hornets took over at the Rootstown 38.
LaVerde pulled out a trick play to give the Hornets a 10-0 lead.
Faced with a 2nd-and-13 at the Rootstown 30, the Hornets ran a double reverse pass with Mike Zeuli throwing a 30-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Lipps with 9:53 left in the half.
“We were running it all week and I knew it was going to be open,” Zeuli said. “Ryan, he ran a great route and then I just knew I had to get it to him.”
Rootstown’s defense bit on the double handoffs, leaving Lipps alone in the left corner to wait for the high-arching pass to fall into his arms.
“We saved that one for a perfect time,” LaVerde said. “He couldn’t have been more open. He was just waiting for it. I was worried because sometimes when you’re that open and waiting that long you kind of don’t concentrate. He almost had to fair-catch it.”
Kirtland’s defense preserved the first half shutout when the Rovers failed to convert on 4th-and-6 at the Kirtland 17.
Neibecker scored on a 6-yard run on the first possession of the second half to push Kirtland’s lead to 17-0.
Rootstown fumbled away one of its third-quarter possessions and threw an interception on another but the Rovers kept the game interesting in the fourth.
Faced with a 4th-and-17 at the Kirtland 41, the Rovers scored on a long pass from Scott Steger to Gavin Schlaubach to pull to within 17-7 with 6:22 left in the game.
“We got the onside kick again this week and then we got a first down on 4th-and-1, which was good because we used their timeouts up,” LaVerde said. “We got down to two minutes and had a nice punt down to the five. The kids finished tonight a lot better than they did this week.”
Neibecker led the Hornets with 72 rushing yards on 20 carries and Joey Torok pitched in with 66 yards on 16 touches.
Kirtland ran for a total of 205 yards on 49 carries while holding Rootstown to just nine yards on 22 carries.
The Hornets collected their second straight victory at Stewart Field after having their 2016 season end there with a 17-0 loss to Cuyahoga Heights.
“It feels great,” said quarterback Dylan Fulco. “Last year we lost in this round. To get back to the state Final Four is amazing.”
Kirtland will play Nelsonville-York (13-0) in the state semifinals on Friday at a site to be determined.