A large sign saying “Make it happen” faces state Route 94 in front of Highland High School. Black and green streamers are so prevalent in the fieldhouse taller players like linemen Myles Houska and Tyler Gienger have to duck.
They are reminders of the stakes the Hornets were already aware of for tonight’s game at undefeated Nordonia. The winner gets a share of the Suburban League championship and all but clinches a home playoff game in Division II, Region 4.
It will be just the fourth time in the SL’s 64 years two perfect teams have met in Week 9 or later. The Hornets’ last-second field goal — aided by a controversial pass interference call — that won last year’s matchup only heightens the hype.
“It’s going to be very exciting and thrilling,” Highland quarterback Bruce Kinsey said. “It’s going to be the biggest game I’ve ever played in. We’re ready. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The parallels between coach Tom Lombardo’s Hornets and coach Jeff Fox’s Knights are striking. Highland averages 40.6 points and 415.9 yards per game and is ranked eighth in the Associated Press state poll. The Knights average 43.5 and 394.5 and are ninth.
The Hornets’ spread offense is led by dual-threat Kinsey (2,053 yards total offense, 23 total TDs, 1 turnover on 273 touches), underrated running back Alex Harris (963 rushing yards, 14 TDs) and receivers Cory Moncol (36 receptions, 594 yards, 2 TDs) and Coltin Kinsey (30, 404, 7). Nordonia counters with breakout star David Murray (1,787 passing yards, 24 TDs, 5 INTs), running back Jordan Nobles (828 rushing yards, 14 TDs) and wideouts Alex Alders (38 receptions, 459 yards, 6 TDs) and Denzel Ward (27, 515, 7).
The only thing that truly differs is 6-foot-7, 310-pound Nordonia tackle Cam Bell.
“We’re going to do what we do, which means we’re going to run the ball and throw the ball with what is open,” Kinsey said. “We’re going to take it from there and take it play by play and attack them from where we think is best.”
Even the defenses are similar, as they rely on speed. Highland features end Nick Corvo, linebackers James Friedl and Grant Wallace and corners Moncol and Coltin Kinsey, while the Knights have All-SL linebacker Alex Woicehovich and a ballhawking secondary of Ward (4 INTs), Tyler Soltis (4), Trey Lincoln (3) and Alders.
“Preparation is key,” Highland safety Blake Phelps said. “I feel like that has helped us out really well.”
Though the similarities are very notable, the differences will likely decide the game.
The main matchup is Highland’s read-option rushing attack against a Nordonia defense that is allowing just 73.3 yards over the last seven games. The other is the Hornets’ undersized but fast defense against the balance of Murray slinging to Alders and Ward and the running threat of Nobles.
The aerial battle in particular is strength on strength despite the expected weather being 32 degrees with winds of 10-20 mph. Highland has held opposing quarterbacks to a paltry 44.3 NFL rating and has 13 sacks over the past two games.
If Highland does have an edge, it lies within the fact Nordonia posted a combined 126 rushing yards on 67 attempts against Copley and Tallmadge. The Hornets compiled 484 on 94, respectively.
Then again, the Knights special teams have been outstanding, with punter Gino Spadaro averaging 36.4 yards per attempt.
The bottom line is little separates the titans, and all signs point to a true donnybrook on the FieldTurf at beautifully renovated Boliantz Stadium.
“It’s a big game,” Phelps said. “It means a lot to us, so we just want to go out and win it, hopefully.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.