No other team in Ohio came into the 2007 season with more pressure or higher expectations placed upon it than Cincinnati St. Xavier. But the Bombers lived up to the billing and will battle Mentor for its second big-school championship in three seasons Saturday at Canton’s Fawcett Stadium while Mentor is hoping to erase the memories of last year's heart-breaking loss to in last year’s title game.
No other team in the state of Ohio came into the 2007 season with more pressure or higher expectations placed upon it than Cincinnati St. Xavier
The Bombers entered the season rated in the top five in the country in nearly every national poll and topped all the state polls.
But St. Xavier (14-0) lived up its billing and will battle Mentor for its second big-school championship in three seasons Saturday at Canton’s Fawcett Stadium (7:00 p.m. kickoff).
“Our kids have played under the spotlight all year long and they have done a great job of maintaining humility and understanding that they are only as good as their last snap,” St. Xavier head coach Steve Specht said.
Mentor (11-2) has been looking forward to returning to Stark County since suffering a heart-breaking 35-34, double-overtime loss to Hilliard Davidson in last year’s title game.
“To be back a second time in a row is unbelievable,” Mentor head coach Steve Trivisonno said. “We’ve talked about how amazing it is to get a chance to do it twice after years of not getting the opportunity. Now, we get to do it two years in a row and we’re real excited about that.”
National Spotlight: St. Xavier is currently ranked No. 5 in the country by USA Today and was ranked as high as No. 1 in the nation this season by PrepNation.com.
The Bombers topped the Division I ONN-Ohio High Poll wire-to-wire against a brutal schedule that included wins over national power Hyattsville (Md.) DeMatha Catholic and in-state threats Cincinnati Elder, Lakewood St. Edward, Cleveland St. Ignatius, Cleveland Glenville, Cincinnati Moeller and Colerain.
But Specht kept his team focused through all the attention steering St. Xavier to a perfect record and a chance at a state title.
“One of the biggest obstacles our guys had to overcome coming into the season was the amount of notoriety they received before they had even taken a snap,” he said. “We pushed just to try to make sure the kids were ready to play week-to-week and that they focused on getting better with a commitment to excellence to be the best we could be every single day.
“I am awfully proud of our kids and what they were able to accomplish up to this point this year.”
Trivisonno acknowledged the honors St. Xavier has received this year.
“(St. Xavier) deserves all those accolades,” he said. “It is a great group of kids over there. and a great senior class for them. They are not ranked (nationally) for nothing. They are a great football team that really has no holes, so we’re just going to have to play a perfect game to give ourselves a chance.”
All-Purpose All-Star: One of the main reasons St. Xavier finds itself back in the state championship two years removed from its first state football title is Division I offensive Co-Player of the Year Danny Milligan.
The senior all-purpose standout was the catalyst for St. Xavier’s success on both offense and special teams this season. He had 46 catches for 697 yards and 9 TDs. He also made eight field goals and returned 28 punts for a 12.1 average.
“Danny has been a difference maker for us now for three years,” Specht. “Everybody always points to his ability to kick but what they’re starting to see this year is how explosive he can be when the ball is in his hands. But just like every other young man on this team is going to tell you that he is just trying to do the best he can with the role he’s been given.
“He is as dynamic a football player you’re going to find at the high school level. He is only 5-foot-8, 160 pounds but he is a big 5-8, 160.”
‘Big Time Player Make Big Time Plays’: St. Xavier led Dublin Coffman 10-7 in the state semifinal game with the Shamrocks threatening late in the game. Bombers LB/S Fred Craig broke up a pass on the drive and made the final tackle keeping Coffman receiver Trey Fairchild in-bounds at the St. Xavier 8 yard line as time expired all while nursing an ankle suffered in practice earlier in the week.
Craig was named the Division I Defensive Player of the Year on Monday.
“I was shocked Fred played Saturday night. He popped his ankle bad in practice on Thursday and was on crutches Friday,” Specht explained. “Right now, he is sore and we are taking it easy on him but he feels a lot better and if he can come out and play like he did on Saturday we’re going to be in pretty good shape. He’s going to be fine.
“In big games, your big time players make big time plays. That is what Freddy did on that last drive against Dublin Coffman. Your big-time players have to step up and Freddy has been able to do that the last couple of years and I am awfully proud of him.”
Verbally committed to Stanford, Craig tallied 53 tackles on the season led a defense that allowed only 9.5 points per game this year.
“This is by far the best defense we’ve seen all year and I think we’ve seen some good ones,” Trivisonno said. “We’ve got to try to do what we do and we don’t really veer from that a lot. But It is going to be rough – there is no doubt about it. They are very good in all spots and extremely well-coached.”
Specht was named the Division I Co-Coach of the Year on Monday.
“Good players make good coaches and that is exactly what have this year. We have a lot of good players,” he said.
Filling Some Big Shoes: Bombers RB Darius Ashley earned first team All-Ohio honors this season with 1,311 yards rushing on 213 carries and 15 TDs despite going down with an ankle injury on his second run of the season in Week 1 and was sidelined for three games.
But with a roster of well over 100 players, St. Xavier was able to win games with the Louisville recruit on the shelf thanks to a cast of talented players on the depth chart.
“The ability for us to plug in a Patrick Berning, Luca Romeo or Wendel Taylor when Darius went down – that was big and we didn’t skip a beat,” Specht said.
Trivisonno said: “We’re not a great defense but we are a solid defense and we run around pretty well. We’ll see how we do against (Darius Ashley). He is fun to watch.”
Two-year starting QB John Hurley suffered a torn knee ligament in Week 8 and sophomore Luke Massa has been under center for the Bombers since.
Massa has completed 61-of-100 pass attempts for 902 yards, 9 TDs and 1 INT filling in for the senior
“Luke’s done a great job. He is still growing and maturing and you don’t want to throw a whole lot on him,” Specht said. “You want these kids to have fun with the game because it is just a game and I remind Luke of that everyday. He has been blessed with tremendous talent and he should have fun at what he does.
“His growth has been tremendous since Week 8 and he is not a sophomore anymore. He is a varsity player and has (several) games under his belt. We expect more out of him now.”
Speaking of Quarterbacks: Mentor signal-caller Bart Tanksi is arguably the best QB in the state this year. He was 211-of-350 passing for 3,001 yards, 25 TDs and 6 INTs and was the Cardinals second leading rusher with 563 yards on 177 carries and 9 TDs.
Tanksi shares Division I Offensive Player of the Year honors with Milligan this year and earned 2007 Mr. Football honors Wednesday.
In last year’s championship game, Tanksi threw for a title game record 4 TDs completing a record 24-of-31 attempts for 327 yards.
“He’s a special quarterback for us,” Trivisonno said. “He is a smart kid academically and bright football-wise.”
Specht added: “Bart Tanksi is as good a high school quarterback as we’ve seen in a long time. He is a really special player and anytime you have a quarterback coming back with a lot of experience and that has been to the state title game it is a huge advantage. The fact that they were in the state game last year is a huge advantage. I think, though, the fact we were there in 2005 helps us.”
Unfinished Business: Last year’s loss in the state championship game left Mentor unfulfilled but the Cardinals came out this season aiming to finish the job.
“I refused to look at the film or the pictures (from last year’s state championship) but it was something we talked about a lot,” Trivisonno said. “We thought at the end of last year when the season was over that we had some good, young kids coming up and had enough coming back that we could get back here and we were fortunate enough this year to keep getting better and we ended up back here again.
“We’ve got to go back and see if we can finish this thing this time. We’ve made our motto all year long ‘Finish It.’ We came so close to having a title last year and our goal all year long was to get back here and get it done. That is what we are going to try and we are going to give it our best effort against a great team this Saturday.”
Start Spread-ing the News: Mentor’s spread offense led by Tanksi will have its hands full against the stingy St. Xavier defense but the Cardinals have plenty of weapons in their arsenal.
WR Tyler Schutz reeled in 58 catches for 815 yards and 9 TDs this season while WR Cory Zikesch snared 56 catches for 839 yards and 9 TDs.
“One of our coaches made a comment that watching (Mentor’s offense) is like watching a surgeon,” Specht said. “They are so meticulous with what they do in that spread offense and they run it so well.
“Offensively, they have a lot of skilled receivers, they spread the ball around, and their offensive line does a great job of protecting Tanski and moves the pocket well. So, there are a lot of different launch points to be worried about as a defense.”
RB Tom Worden had 191 carries for 1,435 yards and 18 TDs.
“Tom is an exceptional back. He’s going to be a good one,” Trivisonno said. “He just has that knack for the game. He does some of the things you just can’t teach kids to do and he’s been huge for us this year.”
Specht added: “You think so much about their passing game that you lose sight of the fact that they run the ball well with the running back and quarterback. They have so many weapons and attack you in a lot of different ways.
“I know coach Trivisonno has done a great job with that no-huddle attack that they employ and it is tough to get different defense in quickly. Those are all advantages for Mentor.
“Defensively, you can’t get real complicated because the kids will get confused. We’re just going to have to play as fundamentally sound as we can and try to keep it simple so our kids can play fast. If we can do that I think we can give our kids a chance.”
Trivisonno implemented the spread offense seven years ago and took some pointers from some of the best in the game, namely University of Florida head coach Urban Meyer.
“I knew Urban Meyer from recruiting when he was at Notre Dame and Bowling Green,” said BG grad Trivisonno. “He was nice enough to let us come in and spend two or three days there to learn the offense and we’ve kind of adapted it over the years.
“This group of seniors is the first group that has run it all the way through from seventh grade on. So, I think they all know it and understand it and play without the coaches. They’ve done it for so many years and done it at all our levels and I think that has really helped to get our offense at the point it is at now.”
Battle Tested: Mentor has reached the Division I state championship with a schedule that has only two teams with losing records this season.
“Last year we beat Glenville twice, Canton McKinley, Warren Harding and Massillon so we played all the big schools up here and did real well,” Trivisonno said. “This year we were able to beat Glenville again, St. Ignatius and get Massillon a second year in a row. I think that really helps you with the idea that we can play with teams even though we don’t have the same long-running, notoriety as some of the other schools. Our kids know they are a good football team in a very good football program.
“We had some really good football teams in 2002 and 2003 and I think the thing that hurt us in the playoffs was not having to play week in and week out,” he added. “I think you have to play a tough schedule and if you don’t it will hurt you in the playoffs. We’re never going to go 15-0 but we are going to be battle-tested and we’re going to know how to play against good football teams. I think that is what has helped us out.
“But we’ve got our work cut out for us (with St. Xavier) and our kids are excited and ready to go back and get it done this year.”
CINCINNATI ST. XAVIER (14-0)
Head Coach: Steve Specht
Record at School/Yrs: 50-3/4
League: Greater Catholic
State Tournament Appearances: 15
Playoff Record: 26-13
State Finals Appearances: 5 (1992, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2007)
State Finals Record: 1-3
State Runner-Up Finishes: 3 (1992, 1998, 2001)
State Championships: 1 (2005)
@Cincinnati Winton Woods W, 35-7
Baltimore DeMatha Cath., MD W, 28-7
Cleveland Glenville W, 27-12
Louisville Trinity, KY W, 47-31
Indianapolis Chatard, IN W, 30-0
Cincinnati Elder W, 18-0
Cincinnati LaSalle W, 35-7
@Lakewood St. Edward W, 45-0
@Cleveland St. Ignatius W, 17-14
@Cin. Archbishop Moeller W, 28-14
Cincinnati Elder W, 45-14
Centerville W, 31-6
Cincinnati Colerain W, 29-14
Dublin Coffman W, 10-7
Head Coach: Steve Trivisonno
Record at School/Yrs: 89-37/11
League: Lake Erie
State Tournament Appearances: 9
State Tournament Record: 12-8
State Finals Appearances: 2 (2006, 2007)
State Finals Record: 0-1
State Runner-Up Finishes: 1
State Championships: None
@Youngs. Cardinal Mooney L, 21-10
Strongsville W, 44-28
@Solon W, 27-0
Cleveland St. Ignatius W, 38-17
@Massillon Washington W, 56-52
@Euclid L, 35-34
@Shaker Heights W, 49-7
Maple Heights W, 55-6
Cleveland Heights W, 66-35
Painesville Riverside W, 38-17
Solon W, 23-13
Cleveland Glenville W, 41-40
Brunswick W, 39-14