Ohio City - Currently in the 35th season of his storied and record-setting Hall of Fame head coaching career, Chuck Kyle '69, like his players, is more than eager to take on all of the challenges that the 2017 OHSAA football season will present.
The Wildcats, whose 2016 run ended with one of the toughest losses in Saint Ignatius' rich gridiron history, a 27-20 double overtime setback to Cincinnati St. Xavier in the Division I State Championship Game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, did graduate a strong senior nucleus, particularly along the defensive line and at the linebacker spots.
That nucleus led Saint Ignatius to a 13-2 record last fall, including a 10-game winning streak that was snapped by the St. Xavier Bombers in the title game.
St. Xavier, which was defeated by the Wildcats, 31-14, in Week 9 of the 2016 regular season on the Bombers' Tom Ballaban Field, became the first Catholic/Private School to defeat Saint Ignatius in the OHSAA football postseason. The Wildcats had defeated the Bombers in two previous state championship game matchups, 1992 and 2001.
Carrying an impressive list of OHSAA records that include 27 postseason playoff appearances and 11 big-school state championships, including five in a row from 1991 to 1995, Saint Ignatius is seeking to add five more victories to an overall playoff mark that currently stands at 70-16. Along with last year, the Wildcats were also state runners-up in 1996.
Coach Kyle, who will take a career record of 334-85-1 at his alma mater into a regular season schedule laden with perennial playoff contenders, including state champions St. Xavier and Archbishop Hoban, and 2016 Michigan big-school state runner-up Detroit Catholic Central, took time out from his preseason preparation to sit down with this old gridiron grinder and discuss his 2017 Wildcats.
Saint Ignatius opens what is considered to be one of the most demanding schedules in the entire state on Thursday night, August 24th versus Archbishop Hoban. The kickoff from the Knights' Monsignor Richard A. Dowed Field will be 7 PM. Archbishop Hoban has moved up to Division II this season after winning back-to-back Division III State Championships in 2015 and 2016.
FROM COACH KYLE, WHO HAS ALSO GUIDED HIS PROGRAM TO THREE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS - 1989, 1993 AND 1995 - AND A NATIONAL RUNNER-UP IN 2008.
"Dan and Kyle are good athletes and that helps in a lot of ways," said Coach Kyle of the two young men competing for the celebrated quarterback position, seniors Daniel Alexander and Kyle Hall.
Under the tutelage of veteran Offensive Coordinator Nick Restifo, the Wildcats have produced 16 quarterbacks who have garnered All-Ohio recognition.
"Over the past few years, the quarterback at Saint Ignatius has picked up some nice yardage running the ball when asked or when it occurred," Coach Kyle continued. "Both Daniel and Kyle can do that and both of them have strong arms. We will see which one of them gets the nod in scrimmages and daily practices, when you make a note, well that guy seemed to get it done today. We feel we're in good shape there."
THE OFFENSIVE LINE
"We are also in good shape there with two veterans back in Captain Jack Jamieson (a 6-3, 290-pound All-Area and All-District guard in 2016) and Darian Kinnard (a 6-7, 335-pound preseason All-American and a University of Kentucky recruit at tackle)," Coach Kyle said. "I think our size will make a difference to people leverage wise.
"We also have Billy Corte (a 6-4, 265 senior), who had a chance to get some rotation in last season. He has always played on the offensive line, so that's good. Jivan Meguerditchian (a 5-10, 255 senior) is working at center and again that is a position he has played since day one here. There's some good things there, the fact that there has been that ongoing repetition."
Note: Jivan takes over a position that was held down the past three seasons by perennial All-Ohio, All-District and All-Area selection John Spellacy. John is furthering his education and football career at East Carolina. Jamieson will also get some reps at center and Jivan will do the same at guard.
"We have several guys working at the offensive line positions, which gives us several ideas," Coach Kyle continued, in reference to players such as 6-3, 315-pound senior Juan Pen, who has recovered nicely from an injury that occurred during Rugby season.
"As you look at last year, James Leyden was a great blocker and also a very good pass receiver," said Coach Kyle of his All-Area, All-District and All-State selection from the graduated Class of 2017. "So we're looking for a guy who can do both. With our offense, that guy (the tight end) is very important. We're taking our time with that selection."
Among the candidates for Coach Kyle's tight end position are juniors John Cannon and Tommy Eichenberg. Eichenberg is also a mainstay at linebacker.
Showing the way will be senior Mark Bobinski (5-9, 190 pounds), who is coming off an outstanding junior season.
Mark, who joins Jamieson, standout senior safety and Penn recruit Justin Sands and gifted senior wide receiver/defensive back and Holy Cross recruit Connor Kennedy as the Wildcats' four captains, rushed for more than 1,160 yards in 2016 and totaled 20 touchdowns on the ground. He also hauled in 19 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown and had 238 yards as a punt returner, including a 67-yard TD return.
"He is a strong, tough runner, but what I think is his key talent is his great vision," Coach Kyle said of Mark. "A running back has to see the seams and he does that very well. We try to teach it, but sometimes an individual just has that ability to do that."
Coach Kyle also pointed to versatile senior Aidan Gill at fullback and multi-skilled junior running back/defensive back Jack Kennedy, Connor's brother. Jack, another back who possesses exceptional speed and cutting ability, was a member of the Wildcats' 4x100 relay team this past spring that scored in the OHSAA State Meet.
Senior Drew Phillips Jr. has been one of the pleasant surprises during mini camps and two-a-days with his running ability and sure hands out of the backfield, and young running backs Najee Lockett, Jahadge "Bo" Floyd, James Crosby and Jack Welcsh have also had their moments. Welcsh can make things happen on the other side of the ball as well.
The Wildcats' sure hands club is under the direction of former Saint Ignatius mainstay at wide receiver, Jack Hyland '14.
This is another area of big-game experience headed by veterans Connor Kennedy, Michael Drobnick and Sammy Snyder. Connor is a deep threat with 10.9 speed in the 100 meter dash. He can stretch a defense. The sure-handed Snyder is also very quick in his routes and Drobnick, emphasized Coach Kyle, is a "physical receiver with good hands." Michael is also a mainstay for Coach Mark Sullivan's wrestling program.
Among some of the other names to remember from Coach Hyland's corps are senior Max Pike, a strong, quick and heady player who knows where he needs to be on the field. Turning in excellent camps and solid two-a-day practices are junior receivers Nigel Drummond, John Wetula and Luke Cooper, and sophomore receiver Connor Cmiel. Wetula has also made some big plays this summer in the defensive secondary.
KICKING AND PUNTING
Senior Matthew Trickett, who is one of the state's best at what he does, leads the kicking and punting chores.
Matthew, who caught the attention of the college recruiters at the many camps he attended this summer, is supported admirably by senior kicker Drew Alessandro and junior punter/kicker Patrick Otter. Drew is a tireless worker and a great teammate, and Patrick has unleashed some impressive punts during two-a-days.
"I think we're in good shape there," said Coach Kyle. "We have the ability to kick 50-yard field goals and establish field position by putting the ball in the end zone on kickoffs."
A CASE FOR THE DEFENSE FROM A VETERAN SECONDARY
"Senior corner Cam Toppin is excellent in man coverage and also does a very nice job in our zone defense," said Coach Kyle of a young man who turned in three interceptions, numerous pass breakups and 41 tackles in 2016. Cam's career in the Saint Ignatius secondary was fueled by his outstanding performance against St. Edward's Junior Varsity as just a sophomore, when he shut down the Eagles' top receiver and came away with two big-time, game-changing interceptions.
Joining Cam in Coach Kevin Johnson's savvy and skilled secondary are senior mainstays Connor Kennedy, Matt Viancourt, who also contributes significantly as a running back, and the ever-present Justin Sands.
Sands, one of the top free safeties in all of Northeast Ohio who "takes command out there" in the words of Coach Kyle, had 22 tackles last fall, several authoritative pass breakups and forced two fumbles. Viancourt, known for his exceptional leverage in his coverage and tackling, racked up 32 tackles from his strong safety position, forced a fumble and had a fumble recovery. Kennedy, speed and athleticism personified, can run all night with the opposing receivers.
"Senior Max Corrigan-Mook is a physical corner who knows what we're doing out there," Coach Kyle continued. "He's a guy who can make some one-on-one tackles and that certainly helps. Jack Kennedy is also playing a little bit of corner with his speed, junior Jett Elad brings size and quickness at cornerback and senior Xavier Curtis is also contributing there."
Coach Kyle will be the first to tell you that Saint Ignatius graduated significantly along the defensive line and at the linebacker positions.
However, no one on Wasmer Field is offering excuses. Quite the contrary.
"They were the key to our success last year," Coach Kyle said of his 2016 front seven on defense. "But based on our first scrimmage (this past Tuesday at Solon), we did pretty well there and made a positive step.
"We have a number of guys rotating there," said Coach Kyle of the defensive line. "Grant Abbott is involved there, Aidan Wells, Brad Andrich, Zach McMahan, Aidan Gill, Tobey Engel, Jack Jamieson and Darian Kinnard. And there are others. It's like a committee. So that's a little different from last year. But it worked well in the scrimmage and that's good to see."
In pointing to the 2017 linebackers that are under the direction of the Wildcats' outstanding Defensive Coordinator Ryan Franzinger '02, Coach Kyle was quick to mention seniors Andrew Keirn and Logan Joyce, and junior Tommy Eichenberg. He also spoke of how pleased he is that senior linebacker Tom Grosel is back with the football program after Tommy devoted his efforts last season to his other favorite sport, baseball.
Senior linebacker Jonathan Ockunzzi, a young man with an exceptional knowledge of the game and an excellent work ethic, will, said Coach Kyle, also be a factor on special teams. Jonathan has great feel for the coverage schemes that the linebackers must fulfill.
In closing, Coach Kyle described the Wildcats' demanding schedule as being "good football every week."
"People should find it interesting to come to the games," Coach Kyle said. "We're playing programs that have high hopes for this year."
When asked by this corner, Coach Kyle agreed that his 2017 schedule certainly ranks right up there with the strongest in the Wildcats' football history.
After opening the season with road games at Archbishop Hoban and Mentor, the 'Cats host Euclid and Detroit Catholic Central, are at Cincinnati Elder in The Pit in Week 5, host Clarkson Football North from Ontario, Canada in Week 6 and host GlenOak in Week 7. Then comes the challenging three-game slate of versus Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller at Otterbein University, hosting St. Xavier in Week 9 and making the short trip to legendary Lakewood Stadium for the annual Week 10 showdown with West Side rival St. Edward. This year's encounter with the Eagles is on Saturday night, October 28th at 7 PM.
High school football at its best, my friends.