When the playoffs started five weeks ago, Youngstown Ursuline was a
decided favorite to make the Division V state final and win it. Heading
into the title game Saturday, Ursuline is there, but its opponent now
appears the team to beat.
DIVISION V STATE FINAL
Who: Findlay Liberty-Benton (14-0) vs Youngstown Ursuline (14-0)
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Massillon’s Paul Brown Tiger Stadium
When the playoffs started five weeks ago, Youngstown Ursuline was a decided favorite to make the Division V state final and win it. Heading into the title game Saturday, Ursuline is there, but its opponent now appears the team to beat.
Findlay Liberty-Benton might be making its first appearance in a state football final, but the Eagles won’t be overcome by the atmosphere or the opponent.
In back-to-back weeks L-B has dispatched Hamler Patrick Henry and two-time defending state champion Maria Stein Marion Local. Marion Local beat Ursuline in last year’s state final.
Both teams are 14-0. Ursuline is No. 1 in the final ONN/Ohio High Power Poll. L-B is No. 2.
Ursuline made its second appearance in the state finals last year, before losing to Marion Local 20-14.
The Irish opened the scoring with 76-yard touchdown pass from Lamar McQueen to Dale Peterman that set a D-V finals record for longest TD reception. Marion, though, escaped with the win, thanks in part to two defensive TDs: one on a blocked punt and the other on an interception return.
The bad taste lingers.
“The very day we lost last year our current seniors talked about getting back,” Ursuline head coach Dan Reardon said. “It’s clearly been a goal of ours from that very moment. It’s one thing to set a goal, it’s very different to carry that through the regular season and playoffs and have a chance to accomplish that at the end of the year.”
L-B has its own state history, having reached the semifinals in 2006 only to lose to eventual state champion St. Henry 28-21.
“Two years ago this group of seniors were sophomores when we made it to Week 14 and lost to a real good St. Henry team,” L-B head coach Tim Nichols said. “From that day when we walked off that field with St. Henry a goal was to get back.”
One glance at Ursuline and L-B’s schedules shows a glaring discrepancy. Ursuline has played – and beaten – Division I, II, III and IV schools. The Irish didn’t play a D-V school until the playoffs and haven’t played a D-VI school.
Some of Ursuline’s more impressive wins have been over D-I Massillon Washington (23-13), D-I Warren Harding (33-7), D-II Chardon (41-0), D-II Akron Buchtel (40-6), D-III Mentor Lake Catholic (53-14), D-IV Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (34-7) and D-IV Youngstown Mooney (10-7). The Irish belong to the vaunted Steel Valley Conference.
“Some of our scheduling is by choice and some of it isn’t,” Reardon half-joked. “We play a lot of bigger schools and part of that is because we’re only in a three-team conference. You get into weeks 5-6-7 and virtually everyone else is in their league schedule and it’s hard to find games. We’ve played that schedule for a very long time and it does prepare you for the playoffs. Our kids know they have to play every week.”
When prodded for a turning point in the season, Reardon pointed to the Week 4 win over Massillon.
“When we were losing at halftime and came back and won the game,” Reardon said. “We did it by running the ball and playing good defense. We didn’t do it by tricking anybody or anything. Our adjustment at halftime was to take care of the ball and not turn it over. We took a big steps as a team that week.”
L-B on the other hand is a member of the Blanchard Valley Conference, which is made up entirely of D-VI schools, minus the Eagles. L-B opened the season with Notre Dame Catholic from Ontario (Can.).
“Getting over that (Patrick Henry) hurdle was big,” Nichols said. “Then going last week and beating a school like coach Goodwin and Marion was another boost for our program. Our kids and our community are smart enough that they’ve seen what kind of schedule Ursuline plays. No matter what schedule you play, though, if you get to this week you know you’re a heck of a football team. Our confidence is good and high, but you have to respect a team that’s done what they’ve done (against that schedule).”
WHEN LIBERTY-BENTON HAS THE BALL
There will be plenty of impressive offenses in Stark County for the finals this weekend, but none it can be argued carry the explosiveness of L-B.
The Eagles have scored 649 points this season and average 46.4 points per game. They’ve posted scores of 59, 52, 69, 55 and 62.
Junior quarterback Aaron Craft (6-2, 180) is the driver of L-B’s attack, using both his arm and legs to embarrass opposing defenses. Craft has completed over 80-percent of his passes this year and has 57 total TDs. He’s thrown for 30 TDs, run for 26 and returned a fumble for another.
Craft has already committed to Tennessee on a basketball ride and has played in a state final before. He was the starting point guard in the Division III state basketball championship two seasons ago, scoring 7 points with 5 assists and 3 steals in the Eagles’ 50-45 loss to North College Hill.
“We haven’t seen many (spread offenses this year) and I know for sure we haven’t seen one this good,” Reardon said. “They are very explosive, efficient and it all starts with the QB. He does an outstanding job. He’s a very, very talented young man. He is what brings it all together.”
“I know I’ve never coached a kid and will probably never come across a kid again who is quite like Aaron,” Nichols said. “Basketball is going to be his thing and he leaves no doubt about that but he really enjoys football. He has a real good grasp of the fact that you’re only in high school one time. He’s just one of those kids I think it’s really hard to root against.”
Defensively, Ursuline counters with a talented line-up led by a standout junior of its own: defensive end Jamel Turner (6-3, 215).
Turner, who was runner-up in the 110-hurdles at the state track meet in June, had over 20 sacks as a sophomore and hasn’t slowed down. He has offers from Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Stanford.
Turner is rated the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2010 by Ohio High Magazine.
Senior Domnique Cole (6-2, 198) is a solid DE opposite Turner, and senior LB Alex Menton (5-10, 202) is the team’s leading tackler. Three of four secondary starters are seniors.
“Every offense week-to-week gives you new wrinkles you have to worry about but they are very, very good at what they do,” Reardon said. “It’s frightening how many points they score on a weekly basis.”
Said Nichols: “We just try to make teams cover us from sideline to sideline.”
WHEN URSULINE HAS THE BALL
As good as L-B’s offense is, its defense might be better.
The Eagles have allowed 31 points all year, including just 10 in the postseason and have 10 shutouts.
“You go through a 14 game schedule and only four teams have scored on you, you’re certainly doing things right.” Reardon said. “They play great assignment, sound defense.”
L-B employs a base 4-3, and according to Nichols, there’s not much to it.
“We like to use multiple fronts but I like to think that we stay pretty basic and take the thinking out of it,” Nichols said. “You just try and let them react on game nights. There’s nothing real fancy there.”
The Eagles defense, which returned nine starters from 2007, will be tested by an Ursuline unit that is capable both on the ground and through the air.
“I would classify our offense as diverse,” Reardon said. “We can run empty, we can have two tights and three RBs. We do (different sets) well and we’ve been doing that through the course of the year. We’re multiple by formation and scheme, but our bread and butter is running the football no doubt.”
“I’m not sure we’ve faced a team that possesses the power and speed that they have on both sides of the ball,” Nichols said. “We’ve played teams that have been close and we’ve been really impressed the last two weeks with Patrick Henry and Marion Local, but just watching on tape they jump out. They have the people down there – the size and (athleticism) – that we haven’t seen this year. It’s going to be a great challenge for us across the board.”
The Irish will rotate/feature several backs including junior Allen Jones (5-10, 198), senior Darrell Mason (6-1, 225) and junior Akise Teague (5-8, 165). Jones is the team’s leading rusher, while Mason, who has been hampered by a high-ankle sprain for last 6-7 weeks, is one of the state’s top prospects. He has offers from Illinois, Ohio, Bowing Green and Akron.
Ursuline’s most versatile player is senior Dale Peterman (5-11, 170). Reardon said Peterman is “Having a phenomenal season for us in all phases of the game. He’s a returner, receiver and defensive back and he’s scored a TD every possible way you can this year. He’s explosive and he’s definitely a playmaker.”
Peterman has offers from South Carolina, Bowling Green, Ohio, Western Michigan and Akron.
“Defensively it’s the same goal as always,” Nichols said. “If their going to move the ball we have to make sure they earn it.”
“Last year I was asked the question ‘Was there an advantage for Marion Local having been there the year before and it was a new thing for us.’ Tongue in cheek at the time I said no because I wanted to believe it didn’t. But, everything is a little bit different. There are so many things to deal with. Once the game starts you’re playing football. If it makes a difference at all it might just be in week of preparation and handling the distractions.” – Reardon
“Kirtland is the best football team we’ve played this year. People in Youngstown don’t want to hear that because we played Cardinal Mooney. People in Massillon don’t want to hear that, but Kirtland is the best team we played this year. They did a great, great job of keeping the ball away from us. They went for it on fourth down a lot of the time and had twice as many offensive plays as we did. We outgained them by a couple yards and we outgained them by a point. We only had the ball six times and scored three TDs on 32 offensive plays. That’s not too bad.” – Reardon
“Offensively they match up well with use on the outside and our line will face a challenge they haven’t seen yet. We just have to do what we do. Sometimes football is funny.” – Nichols
“We knew we’d have nine of 11 starters back and we thought our defense was solid last year. We knew early on that that would be our strong suit. It started out that way and stayed consistent. We have kids who know their assignments.” – Nichols
When the season and playoffs started Ursuline looked like the surest bet for a state title in any division. Now not so much. And that’s not because the Irish have done anything wrong. It’s that Liberty-Benton as done everything right. Not too many teams in Ohio in any division could shutout Patrick Henry and Marion Local back-to-back. I don’t think the Eagles shut out Ursuline, but I think they beat them…21-14.