Division I, Region 1
No. 5 Solon Comets (8-2) at No. 4 McKinley Bulldogs (8-2)
7 p.m. Friday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
In a matchup between two of the most storied public-school programs in Ohio, the Solon Comets (8-2) will take on the Canton McKinley Bulldogs (8-2) in a playoff opener at 7 p.m. Friday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Stark County.
The visiting Comets earned the No. 5 seed in the Division I, Region 1 computer rankings, while McKinley owns the No. 4 seed with the two teams set to battle out a rematch of last year’s regional quarterfinal that ended in the Bulldogs’ favor, 28-15, on Solon’s home turf.
“They’re a very good team, just like last year,” Solon 17th-year head coach Jim McQuaide said. “We’ve got to go down there, so there’s a few more issues to deal with, but we’re very proud to be in the playoffs.”
Solon is geared for its 23rd postseason appearance with a 23-22 record in the tournament, including a state runner-up finish in 2000.
McKinley will be making its 27th postseason appearance with a 36-23 record and three state championships: 1981, 1997 and 1998.
Among Division I football programs in Ohio, no public school has more trips to the playoffs than McKinley and Solon.
Leading the private schools, Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller has 35 playoffs berths and St. Ignatius has 29 berths, but both are on the outs this year, while Cincinnati St. Xavier has 26 and St. Edward has 25.
“We’re very proud of the tradition that we have,” McQuaide said. “It’s something that we talked about after the Stow game, when we didn’t live up to our responsibilities of carrying out that tradition, and we’ve improved since then.
“If you take Canton McKinley and Solon, I don’t think there are any Division I public schools that have been in the playoffs more than the two of us. So, it’s a lot of pride on the line. Their tradition is tremendous, and we think ours is too.”
Since taking the Solon reins in 2003, McQuaide owns a 141-52 record, including a 10-13 mark in the playoffs with regional-final appearances in 2009 and 2010. He owns an 8-5 record in first-round games.
The 2019 Comets faced four playoff teams in the regular season with a 46-41 victory against Hudson (7-3), a 27-24 win against Euclid (8-2), a 31-14 triumph against Medina (7-3) and a 41-7 loss against AP No. 1-ranked Mentor (10-0).
Solon’s other loss came by way of a 50-19 road showing against Stow-Munroe Falls (6-4) in week three, which McQuaide said broke the tradition of what it means to be a Comet gridder and coach.
But Solon enters the playoffs on a four-game win streak, most recently with a 38-15 road victory against Greater Cleveland Conference foe Elyria (1-9, 0-7) in a game that the Comets scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
The host Pioneers found pay dirt on an 86-yard touchdown toss and a two-point conversion to cut their deficit, 17-15, with 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter
Solon closed out the night with senior back Khalil Eichelberger’s 3-yard touchdown run, a 47-yard forward pitch from junior quarterback Pat McQuaide to senior Grant McCurry for a touchdown and then an interception return by senior Greg Parries that set up a 1-yard score by Eichelberger – 21 points in a matter of three minutes, 19 seconds.
Senior linebacker RJ Howard, who leads Solon with 101 tackles, also collected an interception. In addition, he scored on a 1-yard carry in the first half.
Signal-caller McQuaide finished 14-of-20 passing for 186 yards, with seven completions for 100 yards going to McCurry for two scores, but McQuaide had his best run game of the season with 12 carries for 96 yards.
Perhaps what kept Solon from running away with the victory sooner were 13 penalties for 121 yards. The Comets were averaging 6.8 penalties for 58.8 yards entering the game.
“One of our focuses this year was to do a better job with the penalties,” coach McQuaide said. “Looking at (the Elyria game), it was a long bus ride, we knew we were already in the playoffs and probably could have brought a little more concentration to the game, both as coaches and players. You’re always worried about looking ahead.
“So, we were fortunate enough to gather ourselves better in the second half and move on. That’ll be the goal through the rest of this week.”
Through the regular season, Solon averaged 31.1 points per game and surrendered 25.6 points per game, but the Comets really have been a fourth-quarter team – outscoring their opponents, 71-35, in crunch time.
McKinley, under first-year head coach Marcus Wattley, a former head coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary and defensive ends coach at the University of Akron, has played five playoff teams this season with a 3-2 record against those teams.
Marquee wins for the Bulldogs include a 32-27 season opener against Warren G Harding (7-3), a 20-6 triumph against Jackson (8-2) and a 28-17 victory against Massillon Perry (8-2), while their losses came against Euclid, 49-48, in week three and against unbeaten Division II AP No. 1-ranked Massillon, 24-14, last week.
McKinley’s offense is headlined by 6-foot, 200-pound senior running back Lameir Garrett, a Western Michigan offeree, who had 25 carries for 159 yards last week. He was a first-team all-Ohioan last year.
“He’s a very good player,” McQuaide said. “We’ve seen some very good running backs – the guy at Strongsville, the guy at Mentor, the guy at Euclid – we’ve gone up against some very good ones, and he ranks right up there.
“They do a great job of running the football. They’re predominantly a running team. The quarterback can run the ball also. They don’t throw it much, but they force you into putting so much effort into stopping the run that they kind of lull you to sleep, and then they have big, tall receivers and kind of trick you with these passes when you’re so possessed with stopping the run.”
Solon held Garrett to just 114 yards on 29 carries last year, but the Bulldogs’ pass game got the best of the Comets for 204 yards on 12 completions by then-senior and first-team all-Ohio quarterback Alijah Curtis.
Bulldog 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior Elijah Wesley has taken the quarterback reins this year. He completed just four tosses against Massillon last week, but those four tosses went for 121 yards with a 34-yard touchdown to junior receiver Xavier Black.
Defensively, McKinley has surrendered 19 points per game this season. Against Massillon, the Bulldogs allowed 206 yards passing, but they also came up with a pair of interceptions with a secondary that is led by 5-foot-11 junior Brian Pinkney, who was a second-team all-Ohioan a year ago.
“Defensively, they’re very aggressive,” McQuaide said. “Their linebackers cover a lot of ground; they’re downhill players; and they play very well at home. It’s a great environment, a phenomenal stadium, and they’ll have a lot of support there. They bring a lot to the table.”
Solon’s only true road playoff win came by way of a 37-12 whipping of Willoughby South’s Kareem Hunt and company in 2011.
The only time Solon played McKinley in Canton was a season opener in 2008, when the Comets came away the 24-10 victors.
TONY’S TAKE: Solon wins, 23-21.