Highland’s Myles Houska celebrates a 28-25 win over Nordonia. (RON SCHWANE / GAZETTE)
MACEDONIA — It was the performance of a lifetime for 42 minutes.
The Highland football team’s defense isn’t known for its overpowering size or big-time names. It relies on speed, aggression and adrenaline instead.
On Friday in the biggest game of their lives, the Hornets added heart to their repertoire in a thrilling 28-25 Suburban League win over Nordonia that was hyped throughout Northeast Ohio.
Highland (9-0, 7-0) clinched a share of its fourth SL title and is 48 minutes away from joining the 1955, 1969 and 2001 teams in the regular-season perfection club.
“This probably the happiest moment in my whole high school career,” defensive end Nick Corvo said. “This is the greatest game I’ve ever played in, and I’m proud I got to play it with these boys.
“I really think it was about heart. We knew what this game meant to us.”
The Hornets’ no-name group without a Division I college prospect was electric until letting off the gas a bit and allowing 15 points in the final 5:44.
Highland held the Knights (8-1, 5-1), who were without All-SL running back Jordan Nobles (knee), to just 97 yards while taking a 28-10 lead and without a first down for a 15-minute stretch in the second half. It also sacked David Murray (20-for-38, 187 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) six times and intercepted him twice.
Seemingly everyone got into the act. Corvo (2½ sacks), Grant Wallace (1½), Nick Haas (1) and Conor McCune (1) had sacks, Brett Barber, Tyler Frederick and James Friedl had tackles for loss, Jonny Zaz and Friedl had interceptions and Collin Paich, Blake Phelps, Myles Houska and Wallace broke up passes.
After completing eight of his first 10 attempts, Murray connected on just three of his next 16 for 8 yards. He then caught fire out of nowhere and led Nordonia on a furious comeback (121 passing yards on the final two drives) that finally came to a halt when Highland running back Alex Harris converted on third-and-4 with slightly more than 2 minutes left.
“This team takes it one game at a time,” said the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Houska, whose tremendous push up the middle was a key factor all game. “We prepare well for every team, and we play with a lot of heart. We may not be the biggest team, but we’ve got a lot of heart, and that’s what we strive for.”
Though the Highland defense was outstanding for most of the night, the Knights still put the crowd of 3,180 on the edge of its seats in the fourth quarter.
Down 28-10 with 8:17 left and fresh off stopping Highland on fourth down just outside the red zone, Nordonia was jump-started by a 15-yard Murray connection to Alex Alders (8 receptions, 82 yards) on fourth-and-7. It was the Knights’ first movement of the chains in nearly 15 minutes.
Seven plays later, Murray found Denzel Ward (5 receptions, 65 yards) in the end zone on third-and-long to make it 28-17. Highland then failed to get a critical, clock-chewing first down, and it took Murray just five throws to make it a three-point game with 3:08 left on a TD pass to Alders and a two-point conversion to Ty Hampton.
“They were picking up the pace, and I think we let down a little bit,” Corvo said. “We got a little over our heads when we were up by so much.”
Harris never did and halted what would have been an epic collapse.
Nordonia surprisingly elected not to onside kick with just one timeout left, and Highland faced third-and-4 from its own 26. It then ran off-tackle with Harris, who churned his legs with two defenders on his back for a 5-yard gain.
Two snaps later, Kinsey was in the victory formation.
“I saw that hole, and I knew what we needed to get,” said Harris, referring to a gap created by right tackle Michael Doak and guard Frederick. “There wasn’t anywhere to go, so I put my shoulder down and got the first down.”
Highland appeared to be on the verge of losing traction early on, but weathered the storm and used field position to outscore Nordonia 28-3 to take a 28-10 lead.
The Hornets trailed 7-0 after Bruce Kinsey (7-for-15 passing, 68 yards; 30 carries, 148 yards, 3 total TDs) threw his first interception in 6½ games and it was returned 10 yards to the house by Ward. However, the defense got a boost after Friedl and Frederick sacked Murray at the Nordonia 1. The initial call was a safety, but it was quickly overruled.
Taking over at the Nordonia 30 after a punt, Highland responded with a 1-yard TD run by Corvo to tie the score. A bobbled quick-punt by Murray set up a 6-yard TD run by Kinsey, giving way for Nordonia to make it 14-10 on a field goal after it blocked a Hornets punt late in the second period.
The momentum swing never fully happened, though, as Highland quickly forced a punt to begin the second half. Kinsey, whose read-option decisions kept the Knights off-kilter, then raced down his own sideline for 37 yards to make it 21-10.
Eight minutes later, Kinsey connected with Moncol for an 8-yard TD strike that came shortly after the defense got another fourth-down stop.
“The defense played an amazing game,” Kinsey said. “They kept us in it. They picked us up and won this game.”
The Hornets know they have one more to win against last-place Cloverleaf (2-7, 0-6), which has won six of the last eight games in the series and has nothing to lose.
“We have a target on our back now,” Houska said. “We need to keep it going. We need to get the ‘W’ in Week 10 and go on from there.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Highland 28, Nordonia 25
HIGHLAND 0 14 14 0 — 28
NORDONIA 7 3 0 15 — 25
N — Denzel Ward 10 interception return (Roy Rudder kick), 6:11.
H — Nick Corvo 1 run (Luke Allen kick), 8:34.
H — Bruce Kinsey 6 run (Allen kick), 3:52.
N — Rudder 35 field goal, 0:00.
H — Kinsey 37 run (Allen kick), 8:44.
H — Cory Moncol 8 pass from Kinsey (Allen kick), 0:36.
N — Ward 24 pass from David Murray (Rudder kick), 5:44.
N — Alex Alders 17 pass from Murray (Ty Hampton pass from Murray), 3:08.