The excitement of a blowout victory in a state championship is underrated.
The better half of 6,922 fans were going bonkers for the entirety of Kenston football’s 42-6 victory against AP No. 1-ranked Kettering Archbishop Alter (13-2) in the Division III state title game on Friday afternoon at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
The 36-point margin of victory was the Bombers’ largest this postseason and the most decisive triumph among seven state championships played during the weekend.
In fact, it was the largest margin of victory in a state championship since 2014, when Coldwater captured the Division V title by 41 points against Canton Central Catholic, 62-21, and Marion Local defeated Norwalk St. Paul, 41-0, for the Division VII title that year.
“All of Auburn and Bainbridge showed up,” Kenston seventh-year head coach Jeff Grubich said of Friday’s crowd. “We’ve been saying it’s been a train ride, man. We’re just picking people up on the way, and I think you saw tonight, man, that’s a heck of a crowd to come down here from Auburn Township and Bainbridge. So, I’m proud of this school, and I’m proud of this community. They really rallied behind these guys.”
The AP No. 4-ranked Bombers (14-1) captured their program’s first state championship after Kenston finished runner-up by a combined four points in 1986 and 1995.
While the 2018 Kenston gridders put together a runaway snowball by the end of the afternoon, Friday’s Division III title game began as a rat’s nest on each team’s opening possession.
On the very first play of the game, Alter junior defensive end Matthew Schimpf got a step off the line and stripped Kenston junior quarterback Jon Tomcufcik as his arm went back to pass, and Alter junior defensive tackle Mason Henry recovered the fumble to provide the Knights a 23-yard field.
Two plays later, Kenston junior defensive back Tyler Mintz intercepted Alter 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior Missouri commit Connor Bazelak’s pass at the 3-yard line.
“Well, neither team looked real settled there on their first drive,” said Alter 27th-year head coach Ed Domsitz, who’s been in the high school coaching business for 44 years overall.
“They didn’t get much of a chance because of the fumble,” he said. “And then we turned it over, was it a third-down play maybe – so, at that point, you’re not real concerned. It’s early in the ballgame. They didn’t exactly run it back for six.”
Kenston would go three-and-out after the interception, and then Alter would drive 53 yards on five plays with a 19-yard touchdown toss from Bazelak that was dropped on the money for 6-foot-3 senior receiver Derek Willits to haul in a one-handed catch in the end zone for a 6-0 lead with 6:36 to go in the first quarter.
Bomber 6-foot-1 senior defensive back Bransen Stanley was in tight one-on-one coverage on the play.
“Oh, that was just a great catch,” Stanley said. “I mean, I was there in the coverage, but that was a great throw by No. 7 and a great catch by No. 9, and the coach always tells us to be level-headed. I can’t beat myself up. It’s going to happen as a DB, and I’ve just got to learn from it and continue to play the next play.”
That was the only catch Stanley would allow Willits to make all game.
“Obviously, you come out pretty fired up when you make a play like that,” Willits said. “You’re soaring pretty high. But it’s always important to keep some resolve regardless of what direction the game is going. So, while I was pretty excited, I knew in the back of my head that it’s something that we’d have to keep going for the rest of the game.”
Keep going the Knights did not, as Kenston’s defense closed off the end zone against their old-school wishbone offense for the remainder of the game. Junior linebacker Logan Vargo tallied a game-high 12 tackles for the Bombers, while senior linebackers Matt Iklodi and Joe Staudenbaur collected eight apiece.
Forcing a run-oriented Alter team to attempt 31 passes, Kenston’s defense continued to get the job done with three interceptions against Missouri commit Bazelak, who entered the afternoon with just two interceptions all season. Not to mention, Iklodi and junior lineman Tim Matty sacked him once apiece, and junior lineman Max Czech had a tackle for loss.
“We prepared for it just like every other week,” Iklodi said about taking on the wishbone offense. “We went into it, trusted our coaches, trusted the game plan they had for us. And we knew, if we could force them to pass, we’d be on a good term.”
Piggybacking on those comments, Staudenbaur said, “We knew it was going to be tough, and we knew they were going to come out and be ready to play, but we had an edge to us, and we had attitude, and we had something to prove.”
Answering Alter’s lone touchdown, Kenston’s potent offense went to work on an 11-play, 70-yard drive that was highlighted by Tomcufcik completing five of six passes for 61 yards to find his rhythm, including a 21-yard toss to Mintz on a fourth-and-seven play from the Knight 38-yard line.
“We’ve been going for it on fourth down for 14 weeks straight,” Grubich said. “So, it wasn’t new territory for us. We play to win here, and, if that means having to be aggressive and taking a couple risks, we’re going to do that. I’m not going to sit back and sit on my hands and watch the other team whack us around, man. We’re going to go after them.”
Tomcufcik went on to thread the needle for a 14-yard touchdown toss to Stanley, who was surrounded by four Knights in coverage.
While Tomcufcik was under pressure all game against Alter’s four-three cover zero defense that jammed seven or eight guys in the box more often than not, the junior gunslinger showed why he was a first-team all-Ohio selection this season. He wasn’t sacked all game, getting rid of the pigskin in a hurry to find his receivers for 285 yards on 16-of-23 passing for three touchdowns without an interception. He finished his junior campaign with 3,032 yards on 62.2 percent passing for 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Tomcufcik was no doubt the difference against an Alter defense that was surrendering just 7.7 points per game entering the day, but he remained humble and gave credit to his linemen and receivers. Notably, the Bombers are bolstered by first-team all-Ohio right tackle Alex Robarge, a 6-foot-4, 315-pound senior.
“We knew we had to be more physical than them, and our offensive line did an awesome job,” Tomcufcik said. “I mean, I couldn’t ask any more from those guys.
“I think we have the best receiver staff in the state of Ohio, and it’s just awesome throwing to those guys, because they’re straight-up playmakers, and they make plays all over the field, and it’s awesome.”
Junior receiver Jay Middleton finished with six catches for 123 yards, Mintz had four catches for 78 yards and a touchdown, Stanley collected four catches for 71 yards and two scores, and 6-foot-5 freshman Ryan Miller had a first-down catch for 8 yards.
While Iklodi blocked Alter’s extra-point attempt on the Knights’ lone score, Kenston senior Anna Sanders nailed her first attempt for the Bombers’ 7-6 upper hand with 1:55 remaining in the first quarter, becoming the second female to score in an Ohio high school state championship game. Springfield Shawnee girl kicker Carly Gregory scored a pair of extra points in the Braves’ Division III state runner-up finish to Cardinal Mooney, 21-14, in 2011.
Sanders went on to connect on all six of her extra points on Friday, straight down the middle with authority, to finish her season 65-of-71 on PATs and enter the Ohio High School Athletic Association record book among 38 other kickers to score at least 65 extra points in a single season in state history.
“Last year, when we had our kicker go down, she wasn’t even on our radar, and we had the backup kicker go down, and I try not to talk to the kickers at all, man,” Grubich said. “I mean, we had these knuckleheads all trying to make an extra point. It was the bad news bears.”
The coach was referring to the five players in the postgame press conference with him on Friday: Iklodi, Staudenbaur, Tomcufcik, Stanley and junior first-team all-Ohio running back Jack Porter.
“So, our kicking coach said she’s going to do it, and he’s done a great job getting her ready to go,” Grubich said. “I saw (Alter) tee off on her on that first extra point, and I told her she better toughen up a little bit. But I’m just proud, man.”
The Knights got called for roughing the kicker on Sanders’ first extra point, but she was all smiles afterward.
After a three-and-out punt by Alter, Kenston went 70 yards in two plays with a 12-yard jet sweep by Mintz and then a 58-yard touchdown run by Porter for a 14-6 lead with 11:49 to go in the half. That was Porter’s longest rushing touchdown of the season.
“The O-line, Ty (Mintz), Jay (Middleton) and Stan(ley),” Porter said about giving his hogs and receivers credit for penetrating the Knights’ fortress, “because we were hitting them with those jet sweeps the whole game, and then the defense flowed left with it. And then George (Sell) and Jeremiah (Jones) and the O-line made great blocks.”
While Alter’s defense was built to stop the run, Porter still finished with 116 yards on 20 carries to conclude his junior campaign with 2,419 yards rushing for 32 touchdowns. He broke the century mark in all 15 games and is now in elite company with 44 other players to break 2,400 yards rushing in a single season in the OHSAA record book.
Then, after trading three-and-out punts, Stanley intercepted a pass that was intended for Willits but was tipped and picked off. On the very next play, Stanley found himself wide open behind Alter’s defense on a slant-and-go route, and Tomcufcik found him for a 40-yard touchdown and a 21-6 lead with 8:55 remaining in the half.
Stanley concluded his senior campaign with 62 catches for 1,045 yards with 11 touchdowns.
“This is what I dreamt of,” Stanley said about making the big plays in his final high school game. “This is what we all dreamt of since we were little kids.”
Alter missed a 31-yard field goal attempt on its next possession, and then Kenston’s Middleton broke loose on a 45-yard chunk play off a quick slant route with great blocking to put his offense first-and-goal at the 5-yard line, but the Bombers couldn’t capitalize before the half and missed a 22-yard field-goal attempt.
While Kenston put up more points in the first half than Alter had allowed in any game all season, Knight coach Domsitz said he didn’t feel his team was out of it during a 21-6 deficit at intermission.
“What I thought what we needed at that point was to come out in the second half and take the ball down the field and punch one in to get a little confidence going and maybe capture a little bit of momentum,” he said. “That didn’t happen, and, consequently, it just snowballed on us.”
Alter went three-and-out to open the third quarter with a sack by Iklodi on second down, then a tackle for no gain by Iklodi and sophomore linebacker Anthony Valocchi on third down.
“It was extremely important,” linebacker Staudenbaur said. “We knew that, if we stopped them there, we’d kill their momentum right away. So, that’s what we did.”
Expanding on that comment, Iklodi said, “The defense is always ready to come out first in the second half and punch them in the mouth and not let any hope or momentum continue for them.”
Kenston’s offense went back to work with Tomcufcik completing a 29-yard toss to Mintz, before eventually redialing Mintz on a fourth-and-six play for a 16-yard touchdown and a 28-6 upper hand with 7:10 to go in the third quarter.
On the Bombers’ next possession, a 34-yard reception by Middleton set up an 11-yard touchdown run by Porter for a 35-6 lead with 2:46 to go in the frame.
The Knights went on to penetrate the red zone, but then Kenston’s D turned them over on downs with a pass breakup by senior Dorion Talley, a tackle for short gain by Staudenbaur and a quarterback pressure by senior Jacob Engelhart and fellow lineman Matty to force an incomplete pass on fourth down to open the fourth quarter.
“When I watch a team on film, one of the first things I look for is to see how competent their offensive and defensive lines are – how good they play, how well they play,” Alter coach Domsitz said. “And I noticed early, watching film on Kenston, that their offensive and defensive lines, they were very good – probably the best we’ve seen all year.”
On Alter’s next series, Iklodi picked off Bazelak’s fourth-down pass – the Missouri commit’s third interception of the game – and Kenston’s offense went 70 yards on seven plays with Porter diving across the goal line on an 11-yard run for his third touchdown of the game. That score enacted a running clock, 42-6, with 5:23 to play, which held up for the final.
“We’ve been thinking about this since second grade, and it’s just great for it all to come true – a dream come true,” Porter said.
Overall, Kenston outgained Alter, 425 yards to 284 yards, with the Bombers committing just three penalties for 35 yards – their most disciplined performance of the season.
“I’m just proud and humbled,” coach Grubich said. “I understand how hard it is to do this, man. And it’s a 15-week grind. So, to be able to finish, it means a lot.”
The Bombers’ already had state championship hats printed to distribute on the field for the postgame celebration and trophy ceremony.
Going from a 2-8 team in 2016 to a 14-1 state championship team in 2018, Grubich said it’s time for his coaches and gridders to kick back and enjoy the spoils of their hard work.
Scoring 605 points this season, Kenston ranks 36th all-time in the OHSAA record books.
“I already had somebody ask me about next year, and I’m still out on the field, man,” Grubich said in the press conference. “And I said, ‘Back the train up a little bit, man.’ We’re going to enjoy this one for a while. I’d say the whole month of December we can enjoy it. What do you think?”
Grubich directed his question to Porter on his right, who said, “Eh, that’s a little too long.”
“Yeah, it might be too long,” Grubich said. “We might be back to work Monday. But you get this thing after 15 weeks, you deserve to take your hat off, put your feet up and enjoy it a little bit.”