Not too many people were putting their money on Chagrin Falls’ defense, but the Tiger gridders were lights out in their home opener against Woodridge on Friday on Saturday at C.S. Harris Stadium.
With 185-pound junior Owen McClintock moving over to middle linebacker for a team-high 14 tackles and 180-pound senior linebacker Will O’Brien returning from injury to produce 13 tackles, the Tigers were in business on that side of the pigskin.
Not to mention, Chagrin forced four turnovers to keep the visiting Bulldogs out of the end zone until 5:29 remained in the game for an eventual 9-7 victory. Both teams moved to 1-2.
“We really played well defensively, and that was encouraging,” Chagrin Falls 25th-year head coach Mark Iammarino said. “We struggled against two potent offenses the first two weeks, and to come back and play a good Woodridge team and hold them to one touchdown in the fourth quarter was good to see.”
Specifically, Chagrin took ownership in the trenches to outrush Woodridge, 210 yards to 81 yards, with Tiger 195-pound senior lineman Bryce Sellars leading the way with eight tackles, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hurry.
Woodridge 195-pound senior running back Ben Lahoski was limited to just 56 yards on 24 carries.
“We’re still working the kinks out offensively, but our defense kept us right there the whole time,” Iammarino said. “Two of our best defensive players (O’Brien and McClintock) really put in great performances, and then the other guys filled in their spots where it was needed.”
Along with Sellars up front, 190-pound senior Drew Zimmer had four tackles, one for a loss, as well as three quarterback hurries, while 170-pound senior Trenton Kruse collected four tackles, one for a loss, as well as one hurry.
Woodridge senior quarterback Andrew Mekeal completed 17-of-37 passes for 151 yards, but Chagrin Falls intercepted him three times.
Tiger 5-foot-8 senior cornerback Cam Owen tallied five tackles, four pass breakups and an interception, while 5-foot-9 senior cornerback Paul Fierman collected six tackles with two breakups and an interception.
But it was a turnover frenzy on both sides, as Chagrin also threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles for a combined nine cough-ups in a roller-coaster affair.
“It really was a roller coaster,” Iammarino said. “It was not a clean game by either team. They had several turnovers in the first half. We had several turnovers in the second half. And it’s hard to win when you turn the ball over and put your defense in a tough spot, but we responded each time.”
Midway through the second quarter, Chagrin Falls bobbled a bad punt snap, and Woodridge took over on the Tigers’ 2-yard line.
But the Bulldogs still couldn’t crack that Chagrin defense and ended up missing a 34-yard field goal attempt to keep the score, 0-0, with 7:24 to go in the half.
“I think Trenton Kruse had a big tackle for a loss, and then Zimmer had a quarterback sack,” Iammarino said. “So, we forced them to attempt a field goal, and we had pressure up the middle.
“To give up the ball inside your own 5 and for them to come up with no points was really big for us. And the team realized that, no matter what, the defense has our back and we can keep fighting.”
Chagrin’s offense finally found pay dirt on 165-pound junior running back Xavier Perez’s 44-yard touchdown run to take a 6-0 lead with 2:51 remaining in the half.
Perez would finish the game with five carries for 66 yards, three catches for 22 yards and an interception on defense.
“He ran a jet sweep, wide to the right, with good blocking up front by O’Brien on the edge and Lucas Gaizutis up front,” Iammarino said. “So, he got into the secondary, made two nice moves and got into the end zone. And for most of the first half, we were kind of just slugging it out back and forth until then.”
While Chagrin 225-pound senior quarterback Dawson Pierce completed four passes for 26 yards, he was the Tigers’ main ball-carrier with 21 rushes for 76 yards.
Meanwhile, O’Brien’s clean bill of health was not only a game-changer on defense, but he also helped carry the load with six rushes on offense. When the Tigers got the ball back with less than a minute to go in the half, O’Brien ripped off a 44-yard run that paved way for Gaizutis’ 31-yard field goal and a 9-0 lead as time expired in the half.
“That turned out to be the difference in the game,” Iammarino said. “So, just by not sitting on it and taking a knee, we decided to run the ball, and (O’Brien) broke off that big run. That was huge for us. He really made one of those plays that we talk about that can be a determining factor in a game.”
With thunderstorms rolling in, the Tigers’ momentum at halftime would have to be put on the shelf until 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
When play resumed, Woodridge’s Lahoski finally found the end zone on a 3-yard run with 5:29 to play, but Chagrin Falls would hang on for the 9-7 victory.
With the triumph, coach Iammarino improved to 176-94 to become the Tigers’ all-time winningest coach, passing up John Piai, who held the reins from 1962 to 1990 with a 175-107-3 record.
“I was really happy for the kids to get the win, because they’ve been fighting so hard,” Iammarino said. “And John (Piai) is a legend. He is Chagrin football. Every year he comes back and talks to our team. It reminds me of not only John but also guys like Lenny May and Jim Bucar, who are no longer with us. So, it gives me a great deal of pride to be a part of that equation.
“And it was great for my family to be there. They’ve been there all 25 years. It’s a huge part of my family’s life. My wife and my sister are always at games, my brother coached for a long time, my boys played, my daughter went to school there. You know, it was very special.”