BRUNSWICK — No one would blame the Highland football team if it had extra moxie after defeating Massillon 17-14 last week or if it played the revenge card after losing to Avon in the playoffs two years ago.
The 12-0 Hornets don’t roll like that. They’ve remained grounded heading into tonight’s Division II, Region 4 championship game at Brunswick Auto Mart Stadium.
The undefeated Eagles command that much respect.
“Avon’s another great team,” Highland quarterback Bruce Kinsey said. “We’ve just got to take it week by week. As great as a win over Massillon was, you’ve got to forget about it.”
Avon arguably has been the premier program — regardless of division — on the west side of Cleveland. The Eagles are 70-14 under seventh-year coach Mike Elder, crushed Highland 45-24 on their way to the 2011 state championship game and have been back to the regional finals in each of the last two years.
Avon is high-powered on offense, aggressive yet disciplined on defense and can change momentum instantly on special teams.
Sound familiar? It should.
“They work good collectively as a unit,” Hornets defensive end Nick Haas said. “They know their assignments and execute well, but I think we do the same.”
Led by 2,500-yard passer Tommy Glenn, 1,000-yard rusher Gerett Choat and 1,000-yard receiver Braeden Friss, Avon’s offense has averaged 38.3 points while rolling through the overmatched West Shore Conference.
The 3-4 defense, though, has been the Eagles’ bread and butter behind a first team that has allowed just 21 points in the playoffs — the other 14 came on opposing pick-sixes — and held standout running backs Demario McCall (North Ridgeville), Justin Rankin (Elyria Catholic) and Wyatt Ohm (Avon Lake) to a combined 109 yards in the regular season.
Avon will be boosted by the return of hard-hitting Alex Habeeb (knee) and has banked on its outstanding all-senior linebacking corps to reach this point. Mitch Tomlin leads the pack with 95 tackles, including 15 for loss, and is complemented by Ryan Steinmetz (69 tackles, 9 for loss), Habeeb (69, 9) and Kevin Maloney (68, 7).
Other strong performances have come from defensive backs Zack Torbert (3 INTs, 7 pass breakups) and Chase Gosselin (11 pass breakups).
“They remind me a lot of our defense,” Kinsey said. “They’re quick to the ball and disciplined in what they do. It’s going to be a tough game.”
Offensively, the Eagles prefer balance but have made waves with an outstanding passing game. Glenn has thrown for 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns despite sharing some time with sophomore Jake Sopko (466 yards, 7 TDs), scatback Choat has kept defensives honest and Friss is a physical, highlight-reel specialist on the outside.
Avon has posted 41 points against Avon Lake (8-3), 45 against Midview (7-3) and 38 against Toledo St. Francis de Sales (8-3). Its only hiccup was a 21-14 win over 1-9 Olmsted Falls, which Highland pulled away from late in a 29-6 decision.
The Eagles will be missing No. 2 receiver Rhys Ratino (concussion), who has 636 yards and 10 touchdowns, but his replacement, Torbert, caught the game-winning touchdown last week in a 24-21 win over Perrysburg.
“We’ve been doing pretty good against the pass,” Haas said. “There’s always room for improvement — it’s like that with every team — but I definitely think we’ll hold our own.”
After last week’s pregame hoopla surrounding Massillon’s fan base, the tone has been different leading up to tonight. Avon and Highland have immeasurable mutual respect — Elder said the Hornets’ defense is the best he’s seen in five years — and will make sure to leave it all on the field.
The communities have rallied around their teams, too, making for a potential instant classic.
“It will be a good showdown between two really good teams,” Haas said.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.