Moments after Kirtland beat Marion Local, 22-20, on Saturday to win its third state championship in five years, quarterback Owen Lewis sought out classmate David Allchin.
“David, what a down year,” he said sarcastically, referring to the popular opinion that the Hornets were expected to have a rebuilding year after graduating 16 of 22 starters from the team that finished as the Division VI state runner-up last season.
On the surface, it made sense to doubt the Hornets.
Kirtland’s Class of 2015 played in four straight state championship games and compiled a 58-2 record during that span of 60 games.
This year’s senior class wasn’t as heralded, especially after finishing 1-8-1 as freshmen.
A loss at Grand Valley in Week 2 didn’t help matters.
“We just knew that we couldn't let that loss define us,” said senior running back Joey Bates, who rushed for 206 yards and two touchdowns in the Hornets’ win over Marion Local. “It really motivated us in practice all year long and helped us get to where we are now.”
That loss didn’t define the Hornets. Instead, it inspired them and helped them to refocus on what they did in the past to earn those four straight championship game appearances.
“After that Grand Valley game we knew it wasn’t going to be a pretty season,” Allchin said. “We knew we weren’t going to blow everyone out like we have in past seasons. We knew we had to buckle down. We knew that we should have beat them and we played a bad game. We were still confident in ourselves, but going into that game we were too overconfident. Every game after that we came in with level heads and we would give the other team a lot of respect, which they all deserve, and we ended up having a ridiculous run and winning it this year.”
The Hornets allowed just 23 points in their next six games before edging Cuyahoga Heights, 28-26, and beating Hawken to win their 11th straight Chagrin Valley Conference Valley Division championship. They also earned the top seed in Region 19.
The march to Columbus began with a 49-0 win over Western Reserve. Close wins over Brookfield, Cuyahoga Heights and Grandview Heights put Kirtland in the championship game, where the Hornets were heavy underdogs to four-time defending state champion Maria Stein Marion Local.
The Flyers, who won the last two Division VII state titles and two Division VI rings before that, jumped out to a 13-0 first quarter lead and was at the Kirtland 11 before a lost fumble thwarted another potential scoring drive.
At halftime, several former Kirtland players addressed the team including Sam Kukura, Matt Grazia, Dylan Diemer and Anthony Veneri.
“Me and Kuk, we were just telling them that 13 points was nothing because they didn’t really move the ball after the second drive on us,” Veneri said. “We were just playing a little tentative. We were gashing them for four or five yards every time so we told them to keep their heads up. We started to convert third downs. We told Joey Bates and Evan Madden, they don’t want to hit you. Joey Bates, every time he ran the ball he ran for more and more and more. They got tired of hitting him. Same with Evan in the hole (at linebacker), they got tired of meeting him in the hole, so we just told them to keep their heads up and have fun.”
The Hornets controlled the line of scrimmage in the second half and took a 14-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Bates’ 57-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-1 from the Kirtland 43 made it a nine-point game. The Flyers made it interesting with a quick touchdown but their onside kick attempt went out of bounds and the Hornets ran out the clock.
“These kids are awesome,” said Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde. “They just keep battling. They shocked the world I think. After graduating so many great players and coming back with really five starters counting holder, kicker, punter and stuff, out of 25 positions we had five starters back. These kids, every challenge, they just never give up and don’t quit. They just found a way.”
The 2016 Hornets will find themselves in a similar situation. Kirtland will return just one offensive starter and six on defense.
“Again we’re losing 18 seniors,” LaVerde said. “The whole offense is all seniors except Brett Diemer. We have one returning starter on offense, so we’ve got to back to the drawing board.”
Bates is confident the future Hornets can find success if they follow the blueprint that led to Kirtland’s rise to the top of Division VI.
“We just hope to leave an example for next year,” Bates said. “They saw all of us getting in the weight room and we saw all the classes before us getting the weight room. They saw how much love everyone on the team, all the coaches, all the community support and we just hope they know to have everyone’s back. Hopefully they just keep it going next year.”
Allchin was more direct with his advice for his soon to be former teammates.
“People are going to doubt them too, just like they doubted us,” he said. “They need to prove people wrong.”