BRUNSWICK — It kept running the ball and running down the clock, giving its defense opportunities to make sure time ran out on Avon’s season.
The top-seeded Highland football team is still running after an edge-of-your seat 24-21 victory Friday in the Division II, Region 4 championship at cold and windy Brunswick Auto Mart Stadium. There are still dreams left to catch.
Next up after joining 1995 and 2007 Brunswick as the only Medina County teams to reach the state semifinals is another legendary Northeast Ohio program in Glenville (12-1).
“To do this with my team, I honestly can say I’ve never been more happy in my life,” running back Alex Harris said. “I probably said that last week (after a 17-14 win over Massillon), but as the weeks go on it just keeps getting better and better. Let’s keep it going.”
How the Hornets (13-0) won their 17th straight came down to see-if-you-can-stop-it football. They pounded their signature read-option over, over and over to control the pigskin for a nearly-impossible 19:28 of the 24 second-half minutes.
Avon limited 1,500-, 1,300- and 1,110-yard rushers to a combined 109 yards during the regular season. On Friday, Harris rushed for 154 yards on a career-high 29 carries, quarterback Bruce Kinsey (9-for-14, 140 yards) added 67 on 22 and fullback Nick Corvo carried three defenders into the end zone on third-and-goal from the 1.
The Hornets’ initial two scoring drives in the second half covered 17 and 14 plays for 77 yards apiece. They also ate up 8:45 and 6:40, with the latter setting up Luke Allen’s game-winning 20-yard field goal with 6:56 left. Highland then converted two fourth-and-shorts in the final 5 minutes.
“Our read-option is our bread and butter, so we just stuck with that,” the 5-foot-8, 170-pound Harris said. “Our line did a great job, as always, and Bruce made the right reads.”
For as grueling of a performance as linemen Tyler Gienger, Houska, Tanner Ramey, Tyler Frederick and Michael Doak put forth, the Hornets still needed to find a way to slow down red-shot Eagles sophomore quarterback Jake Sopko (11-for-21, 235 yards, 2 TDs) in the waning moments.
They accomplished that goal when time ran out after Sopko completed a pass to Dan Durrin at the Highland 30 as time expired, but not before having to endure Sokpo torching their secondary at an alarming rate.
Sopko replaced starter Tommy Glenn (7-for-12, 90 yards) on Avon’s third drive and promptly completed 6-of-6 passes for 89 yards to set up a short touchdown run by Gerett Choat (15 carries, 70 yards) just 1:53 before halftime.
Sopko then completed his seventh straight pass by drilling Zack Torbert on a deep post route for a 53-yard strike just 47 ticks into the second half to tie the score again. He later made another pinpoint throw under pressure, this one 38 yards to Braeden Friss (4 receptions, 146 yards) down the sideline with 1:36 to go in the third quarter, to tie the game for the third time.
Over the final 13 minutes, however, Sopko was 3-for-12 for 55 yards, and 27 came on the game’s final play. The night couldn’t have ended much worse for Avon, as its final three plays resulted in a near-interception by Coltin Kinsey, an illegal forward pass by Sopko that burned precious seconds off the clock and the desperation sideline toss to Durrin as time expired.
“Every (close) game, we’ve almost let it slip away,” cornerback Cory Moncol said in reference to one-possession wins over Wadsworth, Nordonia, Avon Lake and Massillon in which the Hornets held double-digit leads in the second half. “This time, really, it all came down to executing because we knew we needed to. We finally got a stop at the end.”
Highland made the opening 3 minutes look ridiculously easy, as it needed just eight plays to cover 60 yards — Harris had 50 of them — to take a 7-0 lead on the leg-churning TD run by Corvo.
Things looked even better after a defense led by tackle Houska (career-high 9 tackles) and linebacker Grant Wallace (8) forced an Eagles punt, but an on-the-run Moncol (4 receptions, 106 yards) muffed the return right into the arms of Avon lineman Alex Guzik.
The Highland defense held firm again. It survived fourth-and-1 from its 4 when safety Collin Paich broke up a pass in the end zone and later partially blocked a 43-yard field goal attempt by Eric Sumislawski, yet couldn’t come up with anything resembling a stop — especially on fourth-and-9 when Sopko found Paul Duesler just past the first-down marker — once Sopko initially entered the game.
Just when no one expected it, however, Bruce Kinsey used a stiff breeze at his back to lead a clutch response.
With less than 2 minutes remaining in the half, Kinsey hooked up with Moncol for a 9-yard gain and used two Harris first downs to set up third-and-4 from the Avon 44. The reigning Gazette MVP then threw an on-the-money fade to Moncol, who outraced two defenders to the house.
Considering Avon was set to receive the second-half kickoff, the score couldn’t have been more important for the Hornets’ psyche.
“I was sitting there and was like, ‘Wow, that’s a playmaker right there,”’ Harris said of Kinsey. “Big-time players make big-time plays, and that’s a big-time player right there.”
Avon grabbed back whatever momentum it lost on the Sopko-to-Torbert 53-yard connection, but its defense couldn’t make a key stop.
For the second straight week, the Hornets came through on what they call “money downs.” They finished the game 8-for-15 on third down and 2-for-3 on fourth, giving the leaky pass defense much-needed rest.
“Coach (Tom Lombardo) stresses we need to win money downs, so every single time a third down comes around, we try to run the ball,” Houska said. “The offensive line knows we need to do to get the job done. You’ve got to keep trucking along.”
The only disheartening thing for Highland’s offense was finishing, as it couldn’t completely erase Avon’s hopes over the final 5 minutes. The defense gave the Hornets a golden opportunity by forcing a four-and-out with 1:10 left inside Avon territory, but two false starts forced Highland to settle for a 2-yard gain by Harris on fourth-and-6 with 40 seconds to go.
Coltin Kinsey, just enough rush from Corvo and limited time on the clock ultimately saved the Hornets.
“On that (second) false start, we heard (Avon defenders) yell, ‘Go,’ and that’s what our cadence is,” Houska said. “We overcame it and our defense won the third straight playoff game for us.
“We’ll get ready for the Tarblooders next week and go from there.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Highland 24, Avon 21
Division II Region 4 championship
AVON 0 7 14 0 — 21
HIGHLAND 7 7 7 3 — 24
H — Nick Corvo 1 run (Luke Allen kick), 9:02.
A — Gerrett Choat 5 run (Eric Sumislawski kick), 1:53.
H — Cory Moncol 44 pass from Bruce Kinsey (Allen kick), 1:02.
A — Zack Torbert 53 pass from Jake Sopko (Sumislawski kick), 11:13.
H — B. Kinsey 6 run (Allen kick), 2:28.
A — Braeden Friss 38 pass from Sopko (Sumislawski kick), 1:36.
H — Allen 20 field goal, 6:56.
First downs 17 20
By rush 6 15
By pass 10 4
By penalty 1 1
Rushing 22/85 52/222
Rushing average 3/9 4.3
Passing 18/33 9/14
Passing yards 325 140
Avg. per attempt 9.8 10.0
Avg. per completion 18.1 15.6
Total plays/yards 55/410 66/362
Avg. gain per play 7.5 5.5
Punting 2/34.5 3/39.0
Time of possession 18:27 29:33
Penalties 7/54 8/53
Fumbles/lost 0/0 1/1
Name No. Yds. Avg. TD
Gerett Choat 15 70 8.3 0
Isiah Pinto 2 21 10.5 0
Friss 1 1 1.0 0
Tommy Glenn 2 0 0.0 0
Torbert 1 2 2.0 0
Sopko 1 -9 -9.0 0
Name No. Yds. Avg. TD
Friss 4 146 36.5 1
Dan Durrin 5 77 15.4 0
Torbert 1 53 53.0 1
Choat 5 29 5.8 0
Paul Duesler 2 14 7.0 0
Chris Maxwell 1 6 6.0 0
Name Com Att Pct Yds TD-INT
Sopko 11 21 .524 235 2-0
Glenn 7 12 .583 90 0-0
Tackles: Mitch Tomlin 16, Alex Habeeb 13, Torbert 7, Kevin Maloney 5, Bryson Golini 5, Shaun Traine 5, Logan Juhl 4, Antonio Orr 3, Ryan Steinmetz 3, Jacob Kules 2, Domonic Bodnar 2, Tyler Vaccarella, Pinto.
Tackles for loss: Golini, Habeeb ½, Kules ½.
Sacks: Golini, Habeeb ½, Kules ½.
Pass deflections: Chase Gosselin, Juhl.
Fumble recovered: Alex Guzik.
Name No. Yds. Avg. TD
Harris 29 154 5.3 0
B. Kinsey 22 67 3.0 1
Corvo 1 1 1.0 1
Name No. Yds. Avg. TD
Cory Moncol 4 108 27.0 1
Coltin Kinsey 4 20 5.0 0
Harris 1 12 12.0 0
Name Com Att Pct Yds TD-I
B. Kinsey 9 14 .643 140 1-0
Tackles: Myles Houska 9, Grant Wallace 8, C. Kinsey 4, Jonny Zaz 3, Moncol 3, Nick Haas 3, James Friedl 2, Corvo 2, Blake Phelps 2, Collin Paich 2, Manny Dela Cerna, Tyler Frederick.
Tackles for loss: Houska, Corvo.
Sacks: Houska, Corvo.
Pass deflections: Houska, Paich, Friedl, C. Kinsey.