Pagel, Strongsville on the brink of school’s first state berth


Strongsville senior QB Kellen Pagel is the on of former NFLer and Cleveland Brown Mike Pagel.

Fans talked about Glenville. They talked about St. Ignatius. They talked about Mentor.

But the only fans talking about Strongsville were from Strongsville.

Not anymore.

Fans talked about Glenville. They rooted for the inner-city kids who had advanced to the brink of a state title, but had yet to bring one home.

They talked about St. Ignatius. They rooted for the Catholic school program that once dominated Ohio high school football but had faded into the background in recent years.

They talked about Mentor. They rooted for the upstarts who had suddenly become two-time championship game participants and were shooting for their first crown.

But the only fans talking about Strongsville were from Strongsville.

“We’ve been flying under the radar all year,” says veteran Mustangs coach Russ Jacques. “Coming into the season we didn’t get much consideration in the conference and in all the area rankings.”

Well, they’re not flying under the radar anymore. Strongsville can advance further than the aforementioned three rivals if it upends the Wildcats in a Division I regional final Saturday night at Parma Byers Field.

In fact, the Mustangs have already won a school-record two playoff games. And during the regular season, they knocked out such heavyweights as Mentor, Toledo St. John’s, Brunswick and Solon. They have won 11 consecutive games following an opening-week loss to St. Edward. They have scored 30-plus points seven times and yielded nine or less against six opponents, including the explosive Cardinals in a regional semifinal last week.

Most surprising has been a young offense that features four underclassmen along the line. They have opened up holes for senior back Eric Dworsnik, who has rushed for 1,003 yards this season, and sophomore Matt Bianco, who has added 874. They have also provided protection for talented senior quarterback Kellen Pagel, who has completed 121 of 193 attempts for 2,141 yards, 20 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

The last name certainly rings familiar to football fans, who remember Kellen’s father Mike Pagel, who played for the Colts, Browns and Rams in a 12-year NFL career. The younger Pagel missed his junior year with a broken hand, but has certainly made up for it in 2008.

“He has a great arm and he’s very athletic,” Jacques says. “But the biggest thing about Kellen is that he makes excellent decisions. He doesn’t throw into coverage and he always takes what the defense gives him. He has great poise.”

Such praise would please Pagel, particularly because his father gave him advice about quarterbacking that encouraged the same attributes Jacques spoke about.

“My dad told me that the most important thing is to be a leader and manage games,” says Kellen, who barely remembers watching his father play with the Rams in his last years in professional football in the early 1990s. “He said that you don’t always have to make the biggest plays, but you should take what’s there for you.”

And what has been there for Pagel has been a tremendous receiver in senior Alex Kovach, who has caught 48 passes for 1,088 yards and 12 touchdowns. Kovach, who is being recruited by Mid-American Conference schools as both a wideout and cornerback, snagged eight Pagel offerings against Mentor last week and is also leading the team in interceptions.

Sophomore Ray Hamilton, who has contributed 22 receptions and five touchdowns, brings depth to the position.

Meanwhile, the 4-3 defense has performed brilliantly, especially in holding the Cardinals to a field goal and a measly 19 yards on the ground. New defensive coordinator Nick Toth has encouraged an aggressive approach.

“Nick has been a friend of mine for a long time,” Jacques explains. “He has brought a philosophy of team defense that has the kids just flying to the ball. We have a lot of athletes, but we’re not real big. And to hold that (Mentor) offense to three points is just unbelievable.”

The defense is anchored by 270-pound senior tackle Theo Traczyk, a three-year starter who was the team’s leading tackler as a sophomore and junior. That distinction this year, however, belongs to senior middle linebacker Bobby Kaminski, who is averaging about 12 tackles a game. Add Kovach at cornerback and you have at least one standout in each area of the defense.

Then there’s placekicker Nate Freese, whom Jacques considers the best in the state. The senior, who has been offered scholarships by Mid-American Conference schools Akron and Kent and has also visited Louisville, has connected on 10 of 14 field goal attempts, including a 52-yarder. He is also perfect on 49 extra-point tries and doubles as the Mustangs’ punter.

Jacques, however, realizes that his team must click on all cylinders to beat Ignatius.

“Offensively, we have to control the line of scrimmage and handle their blitz packages and stunts,” he says. “If we can find a way to do that running or passing the ball, we can run on passing situations and pass on running situations, which is what you want to be able to do.”

And that means another fine performance will be required from Pagel, who doubles as a highly accomplished hitter for the Mustangs baseball team. His uncle Karl was a minor league slugger who had 56 at-bats in the major leagues during stints with the Cubs and Indians.

Kellen Pagel believes victory or defeat against the Wildcats will simply come down to making plays.

“The big thing is that we need to execute,” says Pagel, who is planning on taking his football talents to the next level and perhaps into the NFL. “The staff does a great job of preparing us and as long as we execute, we’ll be all right offensively.”

Flying under the radar? The Mustangs can forget that now.

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