Solon football has experienced the successes and tribulations in the trenches just the same as any other Division I high school football program going through the constant growing pains of graduation.
While veteran players are coveted in any position on the varsity gridiron, the cohesiveness of a line is often the crux of securing conference titles, playoff berths and triumphs in the postseason.
At Solon, the Comets have had senior-dominant lines the past two seasons, including a first-team all-Ohioan and numerous all-district selections who are now rostered in college programs.
But the main constant entering the upcoming 2020 season is 6-foot-4, 245-pound rising senior Najee Story, who has garnered a variety of college interest among power-five conference programs during past two seasons.
Earlier this month, with 18 scholarship offers on the table, Story made his verbal committed to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He chose the Wildcats over the likes of Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Tennessee.
Other big-name programs that offered Story were Alabama, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame and West Virginia.
“I felt like it was a great choice, a great place to be,” Story said of Northwestern. “It was a good time to make the decision because of all the uncertainty, but I really felt comfortable with my coaches – coach (Pat) Fitzgerald, coach (Marty) Long. Northwestern just feels like home.”
In 14 seasons at the helm, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has led the Wildcats to a 99-79 record, including a 4-5 bowl mark. He was a hall-of-fame linebacker at Northwestern in the 1990s, leading the Wildcats to a 10-1 regular season in 1995 with a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Marty Long is entering his 12th season as Northwestern’s defensive line coach, leading the Wildcats to the 26th best run defense in the nation in 2018.
“Coach Fitzgerald is so impressive, just his love for the game, love for Northwestern, the players – he shows it all and brings excitement with every word and every conversation,” Story said. “He just makes you feel like you’ve known him even if you’ve just met him. He just has that comforting feeling.”
Northwestern offered Story a scholarship during his visit there last July, before his junior season on the gridiron. The Wildcats were somewhere around his 10th offer he received, he said.
Story is undecided on his major – he still has a year of high school at the forefront – but the academic reputation of Northwestern played into his decision.
“I was just excited and just very, very happy that I got the offer, because it’s such a great school academically and athletically,” said Story, who is an honor roll student at Solon.
“My parents have stressed academics on me since elementary school,” he said. “My mom’s a doctor; my dad’s an assistant principal. So, they both know that academics are very important. And my siblings both excel in academics too. Just being in Solon in general, academics are competitive. You have to put the time into studying, review and everything, so you can be up there with academics.”
On the field, Story is a two-way lineman for the Comets, starting as a defensive end, as well as protecting rising senior quarterback Pat McQuaide’s blindside this past season, when Solon went 8-3 with a first-round road playoff loss against Canton McKinley, 29-25.
But he was recruited on the defensive side of the pigskin. During his junior campaign, Story was third on the Comets’ chart with 72 tackles, including nine for losses, and he twisted the jar on a pair of fumble recoveries.
According to 247 Sports, Story is ranked No. 17 among strong-side defensive-end recruits in the nation for the class of 2021. Not to mention, he’s the No. 8 recruit out of Ohio, regardless of position.
“They were all looking at me as a defensive end,” he said of college recruiters. “I think I have a high motor, and I’ll just keep coming at you throughout the game, non-stop, and I can read plays well and the ball well. And I can just get to the ball really fast and just be destructive.”
Story’s destructiveness came through during the Comets’ come-from-behind road victory against state No. 2-ranked Euclid in week seven of the 2019 campaign.
Solon fell behind, 17-0, in that game, with Panther 210-pound senior running back Jaabir Mujihad going to town with 14 carries for 143 yards just 15 minutes into the game.
In the second half, Story, who finished with 12 tackles, and senior linebacker RJ Howard, who tallied 16, were key factors in containing Mujihad, which opened the door to a 27-24 victory. McQuaide scored the winning touchdown on a 5-yard keeper with 1:04 to play.
“I thought about it before the game, but, during the game, I don’t think I was thinking about that at all,” said Story, who suffered a season-ending broken leg while playing Euclid the previous year, when he was a sophomore.
“Maybe subconsciously I was a bit timid and not aggressive, but, in the second half, I turned it up, and my teammates turned it up, and we caused a lot of trouble for them,” he said. “And I think we just started to gain momentum.
“It was definitely one of the more memorable games I’ve played – just the intensity and the attention to that game. It was going back and forth late in the game, with key plays shifting the outcome in our favor.”
Story was part of a Solon defense that caused 26 turnovers – 13 interceptions and 13 fumbles – during the 2019 campaign. Featured with him on the defensive front were seniors Jack Westrich, Tommy Lucarelli and Ethan Pitzel, a Bucknell commit.
The year before that, Story was shouldered up with another group of seniors, including guys like first-team all-Ohioan Nate Leskovec, David Marbury, Nick Close and Yusef Russell.
“Our coaches at Solon have been great, just teaching us a lot with how play, how to improve and how to learn from others,” Story said. “And we’ve had great offensive and defensive lines coming out of Solon recently. I’ve been able to learn from those guys.
“I remember against Stow my sophomore season, it was the first time that year we faced a lot of adversity, and Nate Leskovec just said to me, ‘This is an actual game now. You’ve got to step up and stay calm, and we’ll get through this. But don’t panic.’ So, learning to be a good teammate and working together has helped me be the player I am today.”