A pair of interceptions and a dominating second half helped Kirtland down previously undefeated Fort Frye in a Division VI state semifinal at Massillon Jackson High School on Friday, 35-18.
The Hornets, who led 21-18 at halftime, will play in next weekend’s state championship game for the seventh time in eight seasons.
“I’m so proud of these kids,” Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde said. “They battled some adversity in the first half and played an outstanding second half. They worked so very hard in the offseason to have a shot at playing for a state title. We need a great week of practice to prepare.”
Dominic Capretta set up Kirtland’s first touchdown with an interception on Fort Frye’s second offensive play.
Joey Torok, who finished with 89 rushing yards, capped Kirtland’s opening drive with a 21-yard touchdown run and Mario Rodin added the extra point to give the Hornets a 7-0 lead.
The Cadets responded with a five-yard touchdown pass from Tate to Zane Greenleaf but Engle was stopped short on the two-point try leaving Kirtland out in front, 7-6, with 5:17 left in the first quarter.
Quarterback Tommy Powers then broke a 34-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-3 to push the Kirtland lead to 14-6 with 2:36 left in the quarter.
Powers finished second on the team with 121 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns. Jake Neibecker led Kirtland with 154 yards and two scores on 21 carries.
“Having a bunch of different guys that can carry the ball makes it very difficult for the defense but we wouldn’t be able to what we do without our great line,” Powers said. “They’re the ones doing all the work and opening holes for us.”
Engle opened the second quarter with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Brian Adkins but again the Hornets held on the two-point try and led 14-12.
Neibecker scored his first touchdown of the night on a one-yard run four minutes later to push the Kirtland lead to 21-12 but Engle closed out the half with his third touchdown pass of the night—this one an eight-yarder to Brendan Huck—to pull the Cadets to within 21-18 of the Hornets at halftime.
Kirtland’s defense shutout Fort Frye in the second half and Neibecker and Powers both scored on touchdown runs to finish off the Cadets.
“It was amazing,” Powers said. “Coach always says the second half is ours because we continue to pound the ball and eventually we started popping some bigger runs.”
Connor Gron set up Neibecker’s five-yard TD run with an interception near midfield. He returned the ball to the Fort Frye 12 and Neibecker found the end zone two plays later.
“We were in man coverage and my man went inside for a screen while Joey’s went out for a wheel (route),” Gron said. “The quarterback didn’t take his eyes off the wheel route so I dropped back to help and picked the ball. It was very exciting to come up with a big play during a crucial moment in the game. We all did our parts on the play and I saw an opportunity to help our team get the win.”
Fort Frye drove 59 yards on 15 plays on the ensuing drive but Kirtland’s defense again stepped up on 4th-and-10 at the Kirtland 10 by dropping Engle at the four after a six-yard pickup.
Faced with a 1st-and-18 at the 50, Powers faked a handoff and ran around the right end. He sealed the win with a 50-yard touchdown run.
“It was a power option right and I saw the end crash toward the option guys, so I tucked it in the hole and all I saw was green,” Powers said. “The line did an outstanding job the entire night.”
Kirtland (14-0) outgained Fort Frye (12-1), 447-280, and won the turnover battle, 2-0.
The Hornets will play Marion Local in a rematch of the 2017 state championship game on Friday at Tom Benson Stadium in Canton. Kickoff is scheduled for 10:00 a.m.