Like they had in every game so far this season, the Kenston boys were fixing to score first when they took the opening drive into the red zone against Willoughby South on Friday night in Bainbridge Township.

But a fumble on the 8-yard line changed that, as the visiting Division II Rebels (4-2, 1-2) flipped the gridiron on a 92-yard drive that concluded with 205-pound sophomore running back Ira Sampson’s 36-yard touchdown to take a 7-0 lead with 5:04 left in the frame.

That was the first deficit for Division III AP No. 1-ranked Kenston (6-0, 3-0) since the first quarter of last year’s state championship game against Kettering Archbishop Alter.

The Bombers knew an eventual 37-21 victory wasn’t just going to be handed to them against a stiff Western Reserve Conference foe like South.

“When we turned the film on and were looking at them, we saw all the skilled guys that they’ve got, and they’re pretty big up front,” Kenston eighth-year head coach Jeff Grubich said. “So, we knew that we were probably going to be in for a four-quarter game. And the message to our team all week was, ‘This is the best team you’ve seen since the playoffs last year.’”

That 7-0 deficit didn’t last long. Kenston 6-foot senior Tyler Kestranek took the ensuing kickoff 83 yards to the house, and senior Blake Torres booted the extra point to tie the game with 4:51 left in the frame.

Although Kestranek doesn’t play offense, that was his second touchdown this season. A starting defensive back, Kestranek also had a 65-yard pick-six to score the Bombers’ first touchdown of a week-three victory against West Geauga.

“Amazing blocking,” Kestranek said about his kickoff return against South. “They held their blocks when I was sitting there waiting for a gap, and I rolled to the right, and they helped me block all the way down.

“That touchdown helped everyone. Especially with the fumble recovery, it helped boost our confidence and make everything go more smoothly.”

On the next kickoff, South senior Eastern Michigan commit Rico Small had a 96-yard touchdown return called back on an illegal block, and then a second-down sack by Kenston senior defensive lineman Tim Matty helped force the Rebels to three-and-out.

After a punt return by senior Tyler Mintz provided Kenston’s offense a 36-yard field, senior running back Jack Porter punched in a 3-yard touchdown for a 14-7 upper hand with 15 seconds left in the first quarter.

But on Kenston’s next two drives, the Bombers turned the ball over on downs on a dropped pass that would have been good enough for a 53-yard touchdown, and then lost another fumble in the red zone – this time on the Rebel 9-yard line.

South capitalized on both opportunities, first with senior quarterback Justin Grosel dialing up 6-foot-4 senior Mike Ward while under pressure for a 35-yard score to tie the game, 14-14, with 9:48 to go in the half.

And then the Rebels drove 91 yards off that fumble with Small taking a sweep 2 yards into the end zone for a 21-14 South upper hand 21 seconds before intermission to hand Kenston its first halftime deficit since a 38-12 loss against Mayfield in week six of 2017.

“We knew it was going to be a hard game coming in from the start,” Kenston’s Mintz said. “I mean, they’ve got playmakers everywhere. We were just kind of going to try to have our offense drive down the field to keep the pressure on them.

“So, the turnovers, they stunk, but we weren’t down on ourselves because of them. We had confidence in our offense the whole game. And then our defense really showed up the second half.”

Kenston’s defense would shut off the end zone for the rest of the night.

The Bombers’ offense got back to work on the opening drive of the third quarter, despite a 61-yard touchdown catch by Mintz getting called back for an illegal block behind his play. Two snaps later, Mintz collected a 19-yard pass to set Kenston up on the 11-yard line.

Senior quarterback Jon Tomcufcik then dialed up senior receiver Jonathan Abbarno on a post route for a 7-yard touchdown on fourth down to tie the game, 21-21, with 8:02 left in the frame.

“He was one-on-one with the corner, and he did a great job getting open and finishing the catch,” Tomcufcik said of his receiver. “I knew I was throwing the ball. I told him to get open and the ball is coming, and that was a huge play converting on fourth down.”

With South running the pigskin 23 times for 125 yards in the first half, that scoring drive for Kenston was paramount in terms of not letting the Rebels dictate the clock with a lead.

On South’s ensuing drive, quarterback Grosel fumbled the pigskin at his own 40, and Kenston senior lineman Max Czech was in on the play to recover it.

But the Bombers couldn’t capitalize. On fourth down from the 7-yard line, a tipped passed went incomplete for a turnover on downs. It was Kenston’s third trip inside the 10-yard line coming up with zero points.

“That’s 21 points. That’s unacceptable,” coach Grubich said. “That score should have been a lot more lopsided than it was. That’s nothing against coach (Matt) Duffy, but that’s on me, because my kids didn’t execute. We have to clean those things up and get back to the fundamentals in making sure we secure the ball.

“The tough thing for us, and the thing that I’m proud of our kids about, we haven’t been in a four-quarter game all year. And most of our kids only played two quarters. So, I like the fact that we got a little bit battle-tested tonight and were able to scrape out a W.”

While Kenston didn’t score on that tipped pass, the Bombers owned the field position. Thanks to a tackle for loss by senior linebacker Logan Vargo, Kestranek’s fourth pass break-up of the night and tight coverage by Mintz, who held Eastern Michigan commit Small to just one catch for the night, South was forced to punt from its own 1-yard line.

Kenston quarterback Tomcufcik then booted a punt that bounced out of bounds at the 1-yard line to again pin the Rebels. On the next play, Grosel fumble the snap, and a brigade of Bomber tacklers was there for a safety and a 23-21 lead with 11:45 to play. “I was very excited, because our guys up front were destroying their line,” Kestranek said. “So, everyone was happy for those guys to get that lead when we needed it.”

Kenston had a 32-yard field to work with on the ensuing punt, but holding and chop-block penalties had the Bombers backed up at first-and-35. Tomcufcik answered on a 10-yard quarterback draw, a 10-yard toss to senior Jay Middleton and a quarterback keeper for another 10 yards for a very manageable fourth-and-5.

On the next play, Tomcufcik converted a 12-yard toss to 6-foot sophomore JP Germano, before eventually dialing up Germano again on a 13-yard touchdown toss over the top for a 30-21 lead with 7:04 to play.

Germano had just three catches coming into the night. That was his first varsity touchdown.

“I mean, take 10 (yards) at a time, and we don’t need it on one play,” Tomcufcik said about overcoming that first-and-35. “We just kept getting 10, 10, 10 and converted, and that was a big conversion.

“And JP Germano, a sophomore, it was a great moment throwing him that touchdown, because that was his first one. We’re always going to have that moment together, getting him his first touchdown.”

Kenston’s defense went on to drive in the dagger when senior lineman George Sell, a Wake Forest commit, broke through for a sack on second down and Matty followed up with another sack on fourth down to turn the Rebels over on downs with 3:02 to play.

On a 40-yard field, the Bombers were attempting to pick up one more first down to run out the clock. Instead, Tomcufcik took a bone-crushing hit from 205-pound Sampson as he aired out a pass to the end zone.

Tomcufcik brushed it off, as receiver Mintz came up with the reception for a 23-yard touchdown and 37-21 lead with 1:01 to play, which held up for the final.

“I mean, Jonny’s a saint,” Mintz said of his quarterback. “I can’t do anything without him. I get him back, though. Every Tuesday we go up to my grandparents’ house to treat him to dinner every time he throws me a touchdown pass. So, it’s kind of a little bribery. But he’s a good guy. I love him.”

Tomcufcik completed 15 of his 24 tosses for 193 yards, including eight receptions by Mintz for 124 yards, but Grandma and Grandpa Mintz thought they might not be cooking this week until that play.

Up next, the Bombers travel to take on Chardon (4-2, 2-1) at 7 p.m. Friday in an attempt to avenge their lone loss from last season.

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