BY YANEEK SMITH, BEACON CONTRIBUTOR
STRONGSVILLE — Only one team in each division ends its postseason run with a victory, and Oak Harbor fell just short of that goal on Saturday night, losing 28-14 to Kirtland in a Division V state semifinal at Pat Catan Stadium in Strongsville.
The Rockets’ run was quite special as the team won its third regional title in program history while dethroning reigning Division V state champion Orrville in the process.
But it was a different story against the Hornets, who controlled the line of scrimmage for the most part, outrushing Oak Harbor, 271-71, and holding possession of the ball for 32:04.
“I’m really proud of the team,” said Oak Harbor coach Mike May. “We battled adversity and fought to the end. They never quit battling.”
Kirtland’s defense was able to hold the Rockets’ vaunted rushing attack in check, and that was one of the keys to the Hornets’ victory.
“They’re one of the top defenses in the state, and they proved that tonight,” May said. “They ran the ball well and kept us off-balance. We couldn’t really get any rhythm going offensively.”
What did the Rockets in were their miscues. Oak Harbor (13-1) lost the turnover battle, 3-1, and Kirtland, the reigning Division VI state champions, scored 21 points off those mistakes. Following an interception by Rocket cornerback Tyler May at the Oak Harbor 35-yard line, the Rockets lost a fumble three plays later at its 45. The Hornets (14-0) drove 45 yards in 10 plays, scoring on a 3-yard run by Mason Sullivan with 2:15 remaining in the first quarter. Mario Rodin kicked the first of his four extra points to make it 7-0.
On Oak Harbor’s next play from scrimmage at its own 31, Sullivan intercepted a pass and returned it to the 26, setting Kirtland up with a short field yet again. The Hornets drove 26 yards in six plays, scoring on a 1-yard run by Sullivan to make it 14-0 with 11:58 to play in the second quarter.
The Rockets’ ensuing possession ended with them punting, and Kirtland drove from its 14 to Oak Harbor’s 23, but Oak Harbor’s defense held and got the ball back.
The Rockets wasted little time and scored quickly after taking over with 1:23 to play in the first half. On third-and-10 from the 23, Jac Alexander found Ryan Nuhfer on a 40-yard route up the right seam. Two plays later, Gage Brough caught a 24-yard fade pass to set Oak Harbor up at the Kirtland 1. Clay Schulte scored on a 1-yard run and Caleb Heintz kicked the PAT with 24 seconds to play, cutting the deficit to 14-7 and helping the Rockets seize momentum.
Coming out of halftime, however, the Hornets regained control of the game, needing just two plays to score a touchdown. It came on a 42-yard scamper by Luke Gardner with 11:12 to play in the third quarter to make it 21-7. The teams traded possessions for the rest of the quarter before Joey Grazia intercepted a pass and returned it 31 yards for a score with 9:22 to play in the game to push the lead to 21 points.
The Rockets fought valiantly, driving the length of the field to score with the key play coming on a long pass from Alexander to Schulte. Alexander scored on a 1-yard run with 7:43 to play. Oak Harbor was set to get the ball back with about four minutes to play, but an illegal substitution penalty on fourth down gave Kirtland a first down, and the Hornets ran the clock out.
Schulte, who leaves as one of the best players in the history of the program, talked about what is was like to compete against such a great team.
“They’re a little like us. They just come at you all four quarters, and they don’t stop. They’re physical,” said Schulte. “We had too many mistakes tonight, which hurt us, and that held us back.
“We just came up short. That happens, and it’s been one heck of a ride and I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates. It’s been fun.”
Kirtland, which is located 23 miles northeast of Cleveland, plays in the Chagrin Valley Conference and has won four state titles in the past decade, claiming championships in 2018, 2015, 2013 and 2011. The Hornets have won 29 consecutive games, the longest streak in Ohio.
Alexander finished the game with 15 carries for 56 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and completed 6-of-21 passes for 128 yards and two interceptions, his only ones of the season. Schulte caught two passes for 54 yards and scored a touchdown on the ground.
For Kirtland, Gardner finished with 21 carries for 133 yards and a touchdown and Sullivan had 19 carries for 93 yards and two scores.
It was quite a ride for the 15 seniors on the team — Alexander, May, Schulte, Nuhfer, Heintz, Brough, Colin Ish, Jordan Arnold, Anthony Stewart, Will Dowling, Ronnie Gonzalez, Max Crum, Reese Laughlin, Gabe Dowling and Parker Smith —- who leave having won two Sandusky Bay Conference Bay Division titles and four playoff games.