Kirtland proved to be as good as predicted, with a strong run game, defense, and big plays that cut Versailles one thrill short of a second title in three years.
Canton, OH – In the end, you could chalk it up to Kirtland’s 311 yards rushing.
Or, you could make the case for the Hornets’ run defense, that held Versailles running back Joel Gehret to just 8 yards for the game, on five carries.
But Versailles coach Ryan Jones expressed pride in his kids, his team, and their work ethic at the end of Friday’s 32-15 Kirtland win in the Division VI title game at Tom Benson Stadium…before adding:
“Games like this are highly competitive…two teams that are very good. It’s always going to come down to a few plays here or there. But it’s also a lot to do with the opponent, as well. They (Kirtland) were a good opponent, well-coached by Coach LaVerde, and they made some good plays on offense and defense. And that makes it harder to make the plays when you do have a chance.”
And the Tigers had some chances, after falling behind in the first quarter on point-blank touchdowns runs by Gino Blasini and Will Beers (one of the recovered fumbles), 13-0.
Versailles answered at 10:55 of the second quarter when quarterback Michael Osborne sucked in the Kirtland run defense, hit AJ. Griesdorn behind the secondary with a 31-yard touchdown pass, and for a moment wrested the momentum to their side of the field.
But on the ensuing kickoff big ‘mo’ proved fickle, as Kirtland’s Will Beers gathered in the kickoff at the 10 yard line, cut diagonally towards the sideline, and found an open lane all the way to the end zone – 90 yards, untouched, to crush the Tigers’ momentary high. Having an earlier extra point blocked by Versailles, Kirtland chased that point with a two-point conversion attempt, but that was stopped short as they upped their lead, 19-7.
Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde would later call it a ‘big’ play, but in truth, it was probably bigger than ‘big’. You could call it the turning point in the game as it put Versailles in chase mode for the remaining 30 minutes of playing time.
And the Tigers simply could not get their run game going at the line of scrimmage. Kirtland was that stout from tackle to tackle, and ended up negating tailback Joel Gehret, altogether. For the afternoon Gehret would end up with five carries…and 8 yards.
And for the 144 yards of rushing that Versailles did achieve…Michael Osborne collected 131 of those, while often running for his life. Osborne proved to be the best athlete Kirtland had faced all year, carrying the ball 25 times for 131 yards, while passing for 124 more, and that one touchdown to Griesdorn.
Banged up entering the game, Osborne proved to be elusive, and tough, taking repeated hits in the open field on offense…while cleaning up tackles on the back end as he played safety on defense. Osborne simply did everything!
But he also turned the ball over midway through the second quarter on a poor Kirtland punt that knuckled its way to him standing at the forty yard line. The ball slithered away, Kirtland jumped on it, and had the final possession in the first half with great field position.
Versailles stiffened, defensively their proudest moment, and held with the ball inside the ten yard line, twice denying Kirtland a touchdown inside the five with 15 seconds remaining. Travis George held Blasini out of the end zone on fourth down with a crushing tackle as the clock ran out, and the Tigers still had a chance at 19-7.
Versailles never quit, but the day belonged to Kirtland, who began dominate on the line of scrimmage. Still, Osborne maneuvered the offense inside the Kirtland red zone midway through the third quarter. But a delay of game penalty on third and goal, and a sack of Osborne on fourth and 14 snuffed out that chance for points.
Kirtland immediately took advantage.
And at 5:01 of the period quarterback Jake LaVerde broke a pair of Versailles tackles at the line of scrimmage, spun away from the pursuit, and set sail down the sideline for 74 yards before being run down at the two yard line. A moment later, teammate Rocco Alfieri cashed in to extend the Kirtland lead to 25-7, missing again on a two-point conversion attempt.
At 3:07 of the fourth Kirtland again drove the field using Blasini and Alfieri…with Will Beers looked to score a fifth touchdown as he streaked for the end zone on a 15-yard run. He fumbled, however, the ball rolled perfectly into the end zone, and teammate Will Sayle fell on it for the Hornets’ second fumble recovery for a touchdown at 3:07.
Still, Versailles revved it up for one more score, scoring on an 8-play drive with :55 remaining when Osborne outran the Hornets to the goal line for a score, the two-point conversion was good, and the scoring concluded at 32-15.
“I’m very proud of this football team,” Ryan Jones said later. “It’s been a very special year, what they’ve accomplished has been tremendous. I love these guys and they got here with hard work and by playing as a team for the entire year. We had great senior leadership and I wouldn’t want to take anybody other than these guys into a football game.
“I thought we did a good job of keeping our focus, because in a game like this there’s going to be highs and lows. When you play against a good opponent we preach about how to deal with the setbacks, how to overcome adversity, keep your poise and go on to the next play…and I thought we did that today.”
Versailles finished with 55 plays from scrimmage for 268 yards…255 of those directly attributable to the play of Michael Osborne, who when asked about the pressure of so much offensive responsibility, simply said, “I did whatever I could.”
Teammate Dominic Barga talked about the remarkable journey that it takes to reach a state football final.
“We were here two years ago, and this has to become the new ‘norm’ for Tigerball. We set the bar high for the younger guys, they’ve got to keep working to get back here, and hopefully they’ll have better success than we did today. But they’ll be here.”
Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde went back to Lake County with his seventh football title…after losing in back-to-back years to Versailles (’21) and Marion Local.
“It’s a lot more fun to sit here and talk about it when you win,” he answered, when asked how it felt to regain the state title from a pair of MAC teams.
“I never saw this coming today,” speaking of the score. “I thought it would be a much tighter game. They play in a great league against great teams. I thought it would a one-score game. The kickoff return for a touchdown was big, that was the big momentum change, and then our defense really gave them fits all day…made it tough on their quarterback.”
It was obvious…the motivation of having lost to Versailles to snap their long win streak in 2021, and the hard-fought game with Marion last year.
“On a wet, cold December day, the team that runs the ball for the most yards usually wins the game.”
To that end, Kirtland (15-1) finished with 56 plays for 339 yards…and all but 28 of them DID come on the ground – quarterback Jake LaVerde (124), Alfieri (94), Will Beers (85), an MacGuire Boyd (13).
Versailles concludes its year with a mark of 13-3, and the solemn promise from Domini Barga that this will not be the last you hear from the new culture – the new standard – of Tigerball.
There’s no other team that Ryan Jones would want to coach in a football game!