Thursday, October 6, 2022

Redskins rally to win third straight regional title

MACEDONIA, Ohio—To get an idea of just how far the football team from Cuyahoga Heights has come this season, you have to go back seven weeks.

Or, better yet, go back almost a year, to when the Redskins lost in the Division VII state championship game to Minster. It was the ending of a great season that saw a very talented, senior-laden team come up one victory short.

But rather than fall back into mediocrity, Coach Al Martin and his staff have the Redskins on the doorstep once again, as they came from behind to topple Warren JFK Saturday, 35-20, to win the Division VII, Region 25 crown at Nordonia High School. Cuyahoga Heights, 11-2, will next face Glouster Trimble in a state semifinal game next Saturday at Medina Highland Highschool.

The Redskins advanced to the state Final Four for the third time in the last four seasons.

“It’s a tall order to graduate so many people and have so many guys in new positions and so many first-year starters,” Martin said. “Our goal was to try to win the league and to make the playoffs. The seniors’ goal over the last few years has always been to win the state championship and these seniors were no different. They believed it for sure. Did the coaching staff believe that the team could progress this much? Obviously, every year you hope the team progresses week by week.”

Now we get back to what happened seven weeks ago, when Cuyahoga Heights was battered by Kirtland to the tune of 42-6. But, again, rather than falling apart, the Redskins rallied and have now won seven consecutive games.

“I’ll tell you this,” Martin continued, “if you asked me after the Kirtland game (if we could have gotten this far), I would have told you no. But we kept getting better and better. These kids have worked very hard to get better and we’re a better football team now.”

Better, yes. Perfect? Far from it.

Both Cuyahoga Heights and Warren JFK made numerous errors in their matchup that was played in a steady misty rain. The Eagles turned the ball over four times, although one interception came on a desperation pass as time was running out, and the Redskins lost two fumbles. Both teams had four penalties, often at inopportune times.

“In many ways, our kids played really well tonight,” Martin said. “But, unfortunately, we had the big turnovers offensively, but the guys really believe in themselves and they’re really confident. What they do well is when someone makes a mistake, and in football games there are lots of mistakes, but when someone makes a mistake, the teammates immediately go there to pick the person up and then they just move on to the next play.”

Of course, it’s easy to forgive and forget when the person who makes the big mistakes is also the person who is leading the way to victory. Senior Brayden DiSanza did everything for the Redskins. He carried the ball 26 times for 131 yards and three touchdowns. He blocked two extra point attempts by JFK (his fifth blocked PAT of the season). He recovered a fumble early in the third quarter. He returned three kickoffs for an average of 15.7 yards.

Those plays more than outweighed the fact DiSanza also lost two fumbles.

“He’s a perfect example of the kind of kid that we have,” Martin said. “He’s a kid who really plays hard and sometimes he makes mistakes but then he’s in there blocking two kicks. He plays hard on every single snap on both sides of the ball and he doesn’t get any breaks. He’s been great for us this year.”

The first fumble by DiSanza was picked up by JFK’s Cameron Hollobaugh, who returned it 66 yards for a touchdown, giving the Eagles a 20-14 lead midway through the third quarter. It was the first time in more than a month the Redskins found themselves on the short end of the score.

The turning point in the game came early in the fourth quarter. Cuyahoga Heights punter Kyle Polack hit a booming punt that was downed on the JFK 2. The Eagles immediately drove the ball down the field, but eventually, the drive stalled near midfield. Christian Marantis dropped back to punt, but the snap was high and slipped through his hands. He regained control but was tackled for an 18-yard loss by Jordan Krucek and Disanza.

“We just kept coming,” DiSanza said. “We know that our defense is where our heart is and we just keep coming. They coughed the ball up a few times and we got the momentum back. We just kept working hard and accepting the challenge. That’s what’s so great about this team. We will never stop, no matter what the score is.”

Four consecutive runs by DiSanza gave the Redskins a 21-20 lead they would never relinquish. The Eagles failed to get a first down on their next possession, and two plays later lightning struck again, as Cuyahoga Heights quarterback Sam Shafer, who completed 4 of 6 passes for 104 yards, threw a strike to Polack, who raced down the right sideline to score from 44 yards out, making it 28-20.

After the teams traded fumbles, JFK had one last attempt to try to tie the game. The Eagles drove all the way to the Cuyahoga Heights 26, but Marantis overthrew Jarrett Likens, and Jason Bartosik intercepted for the Redskins. The junior caught the ball on the seven-yard line and raced all the way up the left sideline for a 93-yard pick six to seal the victory.

“I’ve been struggling all year trying to get depth in my coverage,” Bartosik said. “I finally got depth and saw the person he was throwing the ball to. I was able to catch the ball and take it to the house. I saw one defender who could maybe bring me down, but I said, ‘Nah, I’m going to take it to the house and end this game.’”

Ryan Kelber contributed to this story.

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