GRANGER TWP. — Even the most tear-jerking storybook doesn’t end like this.
Senior kicker Joe Simonis knew the odds were nearly insurmountable. Highland was on its own 33 with 35 seconds left, trailing Nordonia by one and without a timeout.
Little did the Knights know the spirit of Simonis’ maternal grandmother, Carrie Wolan, who had passed away 24 hours earlier at the age of 69, was looking down from above.
Simonis amazingly got his chance and delivered by the narrowest of margins, kicking a 45-yard field goal with 2 seconds left to give the Hornets an absolutely stunning 22-20 victory over Suburban League-leading Nordonia.
Weeks after being widely considered an afterthought, Highland (6-3, 4-2) is now a favorite to reach the Division II, Region 6 playoffs with a win over Cloverleaf (3-7, 0-6) in the regular-season finale.
Adding to the wildness, the Hornets are still mathematically alive to share the SL title with the Knights (7-2, 5-1), Tallmadge (7-2, 5-1) and Green (6-3, 4-2).
“I was hoping for it, and I’m just glad I made it,” Simonis said after receiving a crying hug from younger sister Katie. “That’s all I cared about. I was a little nervous, but I was just thinking about my grandma. It means so much, so much, so much. You have no idea.”
In a sloppy, rain-filled game that neither team grasped by the horns, Highland appeared to be done when Cory Moncol (8 receptions, 86 yards) was stopped inches short of a first down at the Hornets 35-yard line with 2:17 left.
Coach Tom Lombardo was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty immediately after the measurement, and all Nordonia had to do was run out the clock from the Highland 20.
The Hornets’ Mark Vitko and Joe Buttita had other plans.
Three straight stuffs by Vitko brought up fourth down with around 40 seconds left. Quarterback Tyler Alders (7-for-22 passing, 127 yards; 23 carries, 100 yards, 2 TDs) dropped back to pass, but was swallowed whole by Buttita at the 33 to give the Hornets a chance.
Highland quarterback Bruce Kinsey (15-for-37, 229 yards, 2 INTs), who struggled mightily all game because his offensive line was getting its manhood taken by relentless blitzing, then drilled Moncol for a 25-yard slant.
An incomplete pass stopped the clock with 15 seconds left, setting up the play that may end up getting the Hornets in the playoffs.
Moncol appeared to have a sliver of room on another slant. The pass fell incomplete, but the defender tackled Moncol early and was called for pass interference to move the ball to the 28.
After a Nordonia timeout, Simonis eyed the uprights, put his head down from the left hash and let it rip. The ball was right down the middle but hung in the air for what felt like an eternity, then barely cleared the crossbar to send everyone wearing green and black into hysteria.
It’s hard to dream of a more unlikely sequence.
“It felt like I hit it good, and it went through,” Simonis said. “That’s all that matters.”
Highland held a 19-14 lead with 11:41 remaining when Adam Kluk (2 TDs) bowled over from the 1 six plays after Vitko recovered a muffed kickoff return by Nordonia running back Jordan Nobles (27 carries, 132 yards).
The Hornets’ offense had a golden opportunity to tighten the vise minutes later, but Kinsey threw an ill-advised pass over the middle that was picked off by safety Alex Alders and returned to the Highland 43.
Nordonia, which wore its opposition down with a no-huddle, zone-read option, took the lead when Alders scored on a keep from 6 yards out with 5:50 remaining. The two-point conversion failed — it was the first of Highland’s handful of second-half stops — to keep the margin at 20-19.
“We blew some coverages and gave up some big runs, but in the end we came up with big stops,” Vitko said.
Highland, which late in the third quarter could only manage a field goal after having first-and-goal from the 3, went three-and-out on its next possession, but its defense came up big again when Austin Adams stuffed Nobles for a 4-yard loss and Tyler Alders threw two incomplete passes.
Taking over on their own 25 with 3:10 left, the Hornets were called for holding and Moncol and Dylan McVay (5 receptions, 96 yards) dropped back-to-back passes. McVay temporarily redeemed himself with an acrobatic 20-yard catch to bring up fourth-and-1, but gave 5 yards back with a false start.
In what appeared at the time to be Highland’s last chance, Moncol caught another slant and was drilled by the cornerback and Alex Alders coming over the top. Moncol was ruled inches short at the 35, and the game appeared all but over.
That’s when the defense, which received an interception from Rocky Chesnick and fumbles recoveries from Vitko, James Friedl and Collin Paich — the latter two were making their first varsity starts — made its season-saving stand.
“I can’t even describe it,” Vitko said. “It’s like something out of a movie. It’s amazing.”
Highland took advantage of good field position to take a 10-0 lead on a 1-yard run by Kluk and a 33-yard Simonis field goal. Nordonia countered with running scores from Alders and Nobles to take a 14-10 lead, with the Nobles TD coming shortly after Highland’s Coltin Kinsey fumbled away a kickoff return on his own 41.
The Knights had little trouble running the ball from that point, but Ryan Bauer couldn’t get a 43-yard field goal attempt over the line in the third quarter and Coltin Kinsey blocked a 24-yarder with 9:58 remaining in the game.
Plays like those further entrench why the Hornets live by Journey’s 1981 song that was ironically played by the band at halftime.
“Don’t stop believing,” Moncol said. “Just like the song. That’s us.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Highland 22, Nordonia 20
NORDONIA 0 7 7 6 — 20
HIGHLAND 7 3 3 9 — 22
H — Adam Kluk 1 run (Joe Simonis kick), 4:55.
H — Simonis 33 field goal, 11:48.
N — Tyler Alders 9 run (Ryan Bauer kick), 6:40.
N — Jordan Nobles 1 run (Bauer kick), 5:23.
H — Simonis 20 field goal, 0:59.6
H — Kluk 1 run (pass failed), 11:41.
N — Alders 6 run (run failed), 3:50.
H — Simonis 45 field goal, 0:02.