With a shot at a fifth straight state championship game appearance on the line, Kirtland’s Peter Gabor lined up ready for anything.
Moments later, the senior defensive back picked off a pass in the end zone to seal the Hornets’ 13-9 win over Grandview Heights in a Division VI state semifinal at StarTek Stadium in Mansfield.
“It was the best feeling ever knowing we're heading back to the (Horseshoe),” Gabor said. “We worked so hard to get to this spot but are not satisfied yet.”
It was Gabor’s second game clinching interception of the season. He picked off a two-point conversion in a 28-26 win over Cuyahoga Heights back on Oct. 23.
Kirtland took a 7-0 lead after Joey Bates’ 10-yard run capped an 11-play, 74-yard drive on the game’s opening possession. David Allchin’s 35-yard run set up Kirtland’s second score—a 1-yard run by Owen Lewis—early in the second quarter that made it 13-0.
The Bobcats pulled to within 13-3 on a field goal late in the second quarter.
Grandview Heights, which finished the game 248 yards of offense, scored on a 74-yard pass play from Andre Ready to James Lachey in the third quarter but failed to convert the two-point conversion and Kirtland’s lead stood at 13-9.
The Bobcats had one final opportunity to end Kirtland’s season.
A missed Kirtland field goal gave Grandview Heights the ball at its own 20 with 3:59 left to play. The Bobcats moved all the way down to the Kirtland 12, where they faced a 3rd-and-11.
Gabor was ready.
“We tried to stay calm and knew we had to make a play,” Gabor said. “Honestly, we love situations like this and you learn a lot about yourself. I knew it was up to us and with our defense I liked the odds.”
Grandview Heights had two ball carriers that entered the game with over 1,000 rushing yards but finished the game with just 40 yards on 31 carries.
“I call (the defense) the feistiest guys I've ever coached,” said Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde. “You've got to give Coach (Ryan) Beeler a ton of credit. He put together a great game plan and the kids executed it. Offensively, we got off to a 13-0 lead and didn't really help them (after that. Holding them to nine points and 40 yards rushing? Yeah, if someone said this team was going to rush for 40 yards, I’d take it.”
Evan Madden had another big game for the Hornets.
He finished with three sacks and recovered a fumble in the win.
“He’s our leader,” LaVerde said. “He’s been carrying us all year. He is as unselfish as they come.”
Kirtland finished with just 282 offensive yards.
Allchin led the way with 109 while Bates had 90 and Lewis ran for 52.
“The win feels amazing,” Lewis said. “I love this senior group. I couldn't have asked for a better group and team to play with and to be able to have a chance to play 15 games with them this year and 60 over the last four is amazing. We have one more week left and we aren't done yet.”
With the win, the Hornets advanced to Saturday’s Division VI state championship game against Maria Stein Marion Local, winners of the last four Division VI state championships.
“It means so much,” Gabor said. “We had a lot of haters and a lot of doubters. Our ultimate goal was to get to the ’Shoe, and we’re going there again.”
The Hornets won state titles in 2011 and 2013 and finished second in 2012 and 2014.
Graduation losses left the Hornets vulnerable in 2015 but persistence, hard work and dedication has Kirtland in position to win the school’s third title.
“This is special, man,” LaVerde said. “This is fantastic for these kids. It just shows what hard work does. These kids just work hard year-round. It's so exciting to see them smiling and be playing in the Horseshoe again.”
The state championship game is scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m.