State semifinal games haven’t always been kind to Chardon football, but the 2020 AP No. 1-ranked Hilltoppers (10-0) are a different animal.
Chardon football’s resume includes a 2-4 record on that stage, with losses in 1988, 1993, 1995 and 2003, while the 1998 Hilltoppers finished state runners-up and the 1994 Hilltoppers won the whole darn thing.
That said, the Chardon gridders will be chasing a trip to their program’s third state title game when they take on the unranked Tiffin Columbian Tornadoes (9-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at Brunswick High School’s Auto Mart Stadium.
Chardon, under 10th-year head coach Mitch Hewitt, who was a senior on that 1998 state runner-up team, is coming off a 38-6 victory against AP No. 3-ranked Canfield (9-1) in the Region 9 title game.
While that was the Hilltoppers’ ninth running-clock victory this campaign and their first regional championship since 2003, there was a huge amount of pride yet also a sense of unfinished business following the game.
“This is big,” Chardon 6-foot-4 junior receiver and safety Nathanael Sulka said. “But we’re not done yet. Our goal isn’t to be regional champs. Our goal isn’t to be a state semifinalist. Our goal isn’t to be state runner-up. Our goal is to win it. So, we’re not done yet. We’re going to keep working.”
Sulka was the man of the night despite only playing one down in the second half – he exited the game after his shoulder popped out of its socket.
But the dude did enough damage in the first half to put the kibosh on Canfield’s season, including a 52-yard reception to set up Chardon’s first touchdown, a 90-yard fumble return to the crib and a 32-yard interception return to set up a field goal for a 24-0 lead right before the half.
Chardon 195-pound senior linebacker Vince Ferrante also had an interception that set up a touchdown in the first half.
Those three turnovers were key, as Chardon’s defense surrendered more yards than it had in any other game this season. Canfield actually outgained the Hilltoppers, 312 yards to 288 yards, but the Cardinals ran 11 more plays. Chardon’s defense entered the night giving up just 148.6 yards per game on average.
But Canfield 6-foot-2, 185-pound sophomore Broc Lowry was perhaps the best dual-threat quarterback Chardon faced this campaign. The Cardinal signal-caller finished 15-of-29 passing for 199 yards, and he had 14 carries for 63 yards – but he alone was responsible for all three turnovers.
Nonetheless, Chardon senior defensive backs Kevin Doyle and Brady Toth and sophomore Trey Liebhardt each had pass break-ups, and senior lineman Myles Mendeszoon and senior linebacker Cade McDevitt had tackles for loss.
Tiffin Columbian, under fifth-year head coach Judd Lutz, who owns a 28-24 record at the helm, is coming off a 17-14 victory against fellow unranked Holy Name (7-2) in the Region 10 title game.
While Chardon had a trifecta performance from Sulka, Columbian had a similar outing from 190-pound junior linebacker Seth Belville.
In the Tornadoes’ win against Holy Name, Belville blocked a field goal to retain a 7-0 lead in the second quarter, collected a 30-yard pick-six to provide his team a 14-0 lead before halftime and then broke up a pass that resulted in an interception for his teammate to retain a 17-7 lead late in the fourth quarter.
Also on defense, Columbian held Holy Name’s dual-threat sophomore quarterback Jayvon Williams to 11-of-26 passing for 103 yards and 17 carries for 71 yards. More importantly, Columbian was able to get off the field on nine of 12 third downs.
Offensively, Columbian senior tailback Kesean Jackson – a 1,000-yard rusher this season – was held to just 27 yards on 19 carries. So, if Holy Name can stop Jackson, it’d be a good bet that Chardon will stop Jackson too.
That said, the Columbian Tornadoes likely have to lean on an aerial attack against Chardon, but the problem remains that their quarterback situation includes 6-foot-3 sophomore Logan Beaston and 6-foot-3 freshman Brayden Roggow.
Roggow started last week against Holy Name, but Beaston came in midway through the first quarter and went on to throw two interceptions in the victory.
Not to mention, Columbian made its way through Region 10 without facing a single AP ranked opponent. The Tornadoes’ lone loss this season was a 20-13 road affair against Division IV AP No. 4-ranked Bellevue (8-1).
With all of that considered, Chardon should be considered a solid favorite to dismantle Columbian on Friday night.
TONY’S TAKE: Chardon wins, 31-14.