Kirtland holds off Cuyahoga Heights in another epic showdown

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Kirtland 42, Cuyahoga Heights 34

CUYAHOGA HEIGHTS—Kirtland and Cuyahoga Heights combined to score 21 points in the final two minutes of Friday’s Chagrin Valley Conference Valley Division showdown, setting up another fantastic finish in the storied head-to-head history of two of Ohio’s top small school programs.

Trailing, 42-34, with 10 seconds left, the Redskins faced a 4th-and-goal just one inch from the end zone. Kirtland freshman Mason Sullivan’s leaping interception sealed the win and kept the Hornets’ perfect season intact.

“I was scared, actually,” Sullivan said of the moments before the snap. “I saw him rolling out and then I saw another dude and reacted. It feels good.”

Jake Neibecker, who ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns in the game, pressured Cuyahoga Heights quarterback Ryan Polk on the play while his head coach was thinking of ways to stop the Redskins from tying the game with a two-point conversion.

Thanks to Neibecker and Sullivan, that play call never happened.

“I was getting ready to call a play for the two-point conversion in case they get the touchdown,” said Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde. “It would have been 42-40 and we’d have another chance to win the game. We got pressure on the quarterback and he had to just kind of get rid of it.”

After being shut out against the Redskins in two games last season, Kirtland wasted little time snapping their scoreless streak as Joey Torok capped the Hornets’ first offensive possession with a 5-yard touchdown run.

Lucas D’Orazio, who carried just 11 times for 78 yards, broke a 47-yard scoring run to tie it three minutes later. Neibecker added a 2-yard touchdown run to give the Hornets a 13-7 lead after the first quarter.

Polk, who completed 23-of-44 passes for 318 yards and four scores, threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Eastern Michigan commitment Dylan Drummond midway through the second quarter to temporarily put the Redskins on top, 14-13.

Kirtland’s Dylan Aquila booted a 26-yard field goal late in the first half to give the Hornets the lead for good.

Torok, who led all rushers with 185 yards on 17 carries, opened the third quarter with a 57-yard touchdown run, but again the Redskins responded.

Polk connected with Tyler Hughes on a 64-yard scoring play that pulled Cuyahoga Heights to within 22-20 before Neibecker punched one in from the 2 to give the Hornets some breathing room.

“It was a great one,” Neibecker said. “Obviously, dropping the last two last year left a sour taste in our mouths. They’re a great team. They come out and compete every single year. They gave us a great game. We kept working hard and kept battling and knew if we worked on our fundamentals and kept working they’d wear down and we’d get the win.”

For a moment, it looked as if the Redskins had finally been broken.

Neibecker’s touchdown put the Hornets up 29-20 with 2:04 left in the third quarter and Torok broke a 39-yard scoring run early in the fourth to increase the lead to 35-20.

The Redskins didn’t quit.

Polk engineered another scoring drive, capped by a 5-yard pass to Hughes.

“What they do offensively is so hard to stop with that option and that empty and the heavyset, they’re a tough matchup for anybody,” LaVerde said.

Kirtland’s offense is just as explosive.

Neibecker broke a 44-yard touchdown run on Kirtland’s first play from scrimmage following the Redskins’ score to push the Hornet lead to 42-27 with just 1:27 to play.

Polk threw his fourth touchdown of the game, this one a 6-yarder to Drummond, and the Redskins lined up for their second onside kick of the game.

“Every time that comes up, everybody on the whole team thinks of Minster,” LaVerde said.

Minster scored 13 points in the final 2:22 of the 2014 Division VI state championship game to defeat Kirtland, 46-42. The Wildcats recovered an onside kick to set up their game-winning touchdown drive.

D’Orazio fell on the loose ball and the Redskins took over at the Kirtland 46 with 41 seconds left in the game.

Three plays later, Cuyahoga Heights was at the Kirtland 3 with a first down and 22 seconds to play. A pass interference penalty moved the Redskins to the 1 with four tries to score.

Polk threw two incompletions and the Hornets stopped D’Orazio one inch from the goal line on third down to set up the decisive fourth-down play.

Neibecker and Sullivan teamed up to keep the Redskins out of the end zone.

“This was great to battle like that,” LaVerde said. “There were a lot of snaps in that game because we were going with a hurry-up offense and they were throwing it and stopping the clock. It was good for our kids to battle a little bit. I wished them good luck and that would be great if both of us were playing in Week 15. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Kirtland improved to 9-0 while Cuyahoga Heights dropped to 7-1. The Hornets close out the regular season at home against Hawken while the Redskins travel to rival Independence.

“Offensively, I think our kids did a nice job,” LaVerde said. “The guys up front did a really good job. Defensively, we’ve got some work to do. They grinded it out but we made a stop when we had to.”

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The creator and publisher of OhioVarsity.com, Hare has covered high school sports in Northeast Ohio since 1997. He began as a correspondent for the Lake County News Herald, where he contributed until 2011, primarily covering high school football and wrestling. In 1999, Hare began writing for IrishIllustrated.com, a member of the Scout.com network of high school and college sports web sites. He focuses on covering Notre Dame football recruiting. OhioVarsity.com was created in 2004 and was a member of the Rivals.com network until 2012. The site's original purpose was to cover Ohio high school football and recruiting news but since has grown to cover all sports and to provide sports information services to high school athletic programs and individual teams. 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.