Located in southwestern Medina County Lodi Cloverleaf is, as Rush sang back
in 1982, “in between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown.” Not
quite suburban, though it competes in the Suburban League. Norwayne,
just south of the Medina County line in the Wayne County hamlet of
Creston, is, in fact, in the far unlit unknown. Down-home, it exudes
country. Both are under bright lights this weekend as the playoffs start.
Seven miles separate Cloverleaf and Norwayne High Schools. The two might as well be worlds apart.
Located in southwestern Medina County Cloverleaf is, as Rush sang back in 1982, “in between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown.” Not quite suburban, though it competes in the Suburban League. Norwayne, just south of the Medina County line in the Wayne County hamlet of Creston, is, in fact, in the far unlit unknown. Down-home, it exudes country.
In both communities, the high school football stadiums have been unlit after the regular season because since their inception in 1972, the state playoffs have been unknown to them. That all changed last Friday, when both schools’ teams qualified for the playoffs for the first time. Just like that, Cloverleaf and Norwayne were on the map and finding out they aren’t so different after all.
Both communities have been energized, supplemented by a run toward the state tournament by Cloverleaf’s volleyball team and a regional appearance by Norwayne’s boys soccer team.
The football teams are strikingly similar. Norwayne’s Wayne County Athletic League championship this year was its first since 1965. Cloverleaf hasn’t won a league championship in more than three decades of play spread over three conferences.
Each has show signs of life in recent seasons only to falter down the stretch multiple times. It looked like that might happen to both again this year. Norwayne fell to Dalton in Week 9. Cloverleaf started 6-0 before dropping back-to-back games only to regroup and beat Wadsworth before stunning Medina Highland. Norwayne coach Kevin Maltarich hinted he had a sense of “here we go again” after the loss to Dalton.
“I don’t want to say yes and I don’t want to say no,” he said. “We had a big letdown Week 9, but coming back Week 10, through the week, I could see the kids’ attitudes change. We had that excitement. I had a feeling we were going to be OK.”
Cloverleaf had less reason for optimism. The Colts were without Cody Roberts, their senior quarterback/free safety. In some views, he is their best player. They were facing a Highland team Week 10 that came in 9-0.
Cloverleaf controlled the season finale much of the way, but a late Highland touchdown sent the game into overtime. The Colts promptly fumbled on their possession, positioning the Hornets for the win. But a bizarre ruling involving a missing tailbone pad led to a 15-yard penalty and a missed field goal by Highland. The Hornets’ University of West Virginia-bound tailback Chris Snook, who ran for 301 yards in the game, fumbled on Highland’s second overtime possession.
Moments later, Cloverleaf senior Kyle Juszczyk, already the hardest player to spell in the state, became the hardest to tackle. He rumbled 16 yards for the winning touchdown, carrying his team into the playoffs with him.
“It’s really unfortunate for Highland,” Juszczyk said. “I don’t know what to say about that. But I’ll take it. That’s the best feeling in the world. It’s what I’ve been working here since fourth grade when I was a ball boy here. I’ve seen everything here.”
Both Norwayne and Cloverleaf have their work cut out in the first round, when both playoff rookies will be underdogs.
Cloverleaf travels to Lexington to face a Minutemen team that went 10-0 and scored points like a PlayStation team. Lexington’s spread offense is far different than the Colts are accustomed to seeing in the Suburban League.
“They’ve got some Division I prospects at the skill positions,” said Colts coach Kevin Gault, whose team finished the regular season 8-2. “They’ve got three receivers that can do things. Their offensive linemen are big, strong and move well. It’s going to be a big challenge. We’ve come through a league where we’ve had to play people like them. You’re in the playoffs, it doesn’t matter who you play. They’re all going to be good team.”
Norwayne heads Saturday to Gates Mills to face Gilmour Academy. Norwayne is a tiny high school that you’ll miss if you’re not paying attention while driving south on State Route 3. Situated in the urban sprawl of Cleveland’s southeast suburbs, Gilmour has a campus, complete with dormitories.
It costs more to attend Gilmour than to own a house in Creston. Norwayne is out in the country; Gilmour has students from other countries. As different as Norwayne and Cloverleaf are, Gilmour makes them look like twins. Norwayne’s student-section chant, should the team have the lead late, might be something long the lines of “Start the Lear Jets.”
Gilmour does not, however, have lights on its football field. That mean’s kickoff Saturday will be 1 p.m. It’s a decided advantage for a team that is used to early starts. Norwayne will have to pack its busses by 9 a.m. or so.
“They’ve played day games before,” Maltarich said. “This will be our first. They’re on turf. We’ve never been on turf.”
The Bobcats have never been a lot of things. One of which is tempted to look ahead just a bit, something Gilmour is no doubt guilty of as well right about now. Around the corner for the winner will likely be a meeting with Youngstown Ursuline, the decided favorite to win the Division V state championship.
Maltarich, who preaches “one-day-at-a-time” coach-speak with the best of them, admits even amidst his “We’re trying to go 1-0 every week” mantra that it’s hard not to peek just a little bit. The thought of Norwayne, from tiny Creston (pop. 2,120) going against a parochial power whose students come from, well, a little larger area, is mind-numbing.
Win or lose, both Norwayne and Cloverleaf will enjoy the rare trip. While Lexington and Gilmour are repeat visitors, the Colts and Bobcats don’t know if they’ll ever be back. They hope so. They see what it’s done for their communities already.
“In Northeast Ohio, the communities take such pride in their high school football teams,” Cloverleaf’s Gault said. “I talk to the kids about this a lot as well. Being in the playoffs gives you that sense of pride. Our volleyball team is doing the best in county history. Anything people can grab on to, to get a sense of pride, they will. With the levy problems we’ve faced the last few years hopefully this will generate some excitement.”
At Norwayne, there will be a league championship banner in the gym for the first time since parents of current players were little kids, or not even born. The natives are, needless to say, reveling in it a bit.
“I know the older people are really taking it to heart,” Maltarich said. “Especially people who have been through the program. It all happened so fast, the kids don’t really have a grasp on what they have accomplished.”
At Cloverleaf, it could be said that the Colts backed in a bit, when an opposing kicker’s sore back made it uncomfortable to wear his tailbone pad. Insert your favorite joke here but do it knowing well that on the football field, Cloverleaf will never again be the butt of it.