Game week has begun.
The Wildcats conquered the annual Jamboree game vs. Canton McKinley on Thursday night at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, ushering in the first week of the 2019 football season.
Say it aloud with us. Football season is here!
And after Thursday night's performance on the field, the Wildcats have plenty of reason to be optimistic for the start of the season.
From start to finish, the Wildcats played quite well. The offense ran smoothly, the defense shut down the Bulldogs for most of the evening, and the special teams clicked. The teams did keep score, with the Wildcats enjoying a 28-8 margin after two quarters with the first-teamers and one quarter of a running clock with the second-teamers. The Wildcats scored 21 of the 28 points in the first half, but also played well in the third quarter.
The contest started with a successful Saint Ignatius offensive drive. Quarterback Griffin Hanna led the Wildcats on a march down the field in impressive fashion. Jack Welcsh completed the series with a smart touchdown run, utilizing a gap opened by Owen Keane and Tony Georges.
The defense also opened with a strong series. The front seven played well in stuffing an early run, and the secondary stepped up. The Bulldogs attempted several long passes, looking for a deep ball to loft pass the Wildcats' defensive backs. But the Saint Ignatius secondary rose to the occasion, batting away a number of would-be longballs.
The offense kept clicking in the second series. The Griffin Hanna to Connor Cmiel connection bore fruit again on Thursday, as it has all preseason. Once grade school teammates, the two teamed up for a number of circus plays. The first of many occurred on a broken play with great McKinley coverage. Looking for an outlet, Hanna scrambled from the pocket to extend the play. Channeling his inner Baker Mayfield, Hanna lofted a pass to Cmiel in double coverage. The picture-perfect pass found Cmiel, who made an Odell Beckham-esque one-handed grab for a 20-yard gain. The play drew a raucous response from the Wildcats' sideline.
"It was a spider route against the corner, Griff put it on me, and I made a play. Nothing special," Cmiel said.
Only a couple plays later, Hanna found Cmiel near the goal line on another picturesque play. The amazing completion yielded another touchdown, setting the Wildcats ahead 14-0.
"On the play before, Griff put it on a line and the DB hit it away. I said, 'Next time, air it out.' And the next play, he put it out there, and I went out and got it," Cmiel said.
Head Coach Chuck Kyle '69 couldn't say enough good things about his senior wideout/corner.
"Connor Cmiel made some ridiculous circus catches out there. But we're used to that. That's Connor."
The Wildcats' defense continued to play well on the next drive, holding McKinley off the board. Chris Snyder made a great play on defense to deflect a pass, while Henry and Sean Cook also did well in knocking away passes. The Bulldogs continued to attempt downfield passes but were unsuccessful due to the Wildcats' strong defense.
James Crosby showcased his playmaking ability on the next Saint Ignatius drive. The senior picked up a solid gain on a nice offtackle run, thanks in part to a bruising block by Sam Daugstrup. Crosby also made the most of a run up the middle on a broken block, breaking a tackle and earning a solid gain on what looked to be a tackle for loss. The drive ended in a punt, but Declan Mangan pinned the opponents deep on a 45-yard punt.
After an unsuccessful Canton McKinley drive, the Wildcats drove down the field once again. Hanna looked poised in the pocket, showcasing great leadership skills in leading the Wildcats down the gridiron. The Wildcats rolled into the red zone with a prime opportunity to go up by three scores. Hanna and the Cats did just that, as Jake Lang flashed open across the middle on a slant. Hanna hit him on a bullet pass, and Lang did the rest. The senior bulled through two tackles for a touchdown.
During the drive, Henry Cook also made some nice grabs for the Wildcats, impressing Coach Kyle.
"Henry had a number of catches, that helps a lot. He's into the flow and he's a nice weapon. Good things tonight."
The Bulldogs gained some ground on the next drive before stalling. The Wildcats also failed to score on the next drive, as a holding call set the visitors back. A high snap on a punt into the back of the end zone granted the Bulldogs the team's first points of the game on a safety.
In the waning minutes of the half, the Wildcats earned another chance to score after shutting down the Bulldogs. Charlie Kinzel tapped away a pass and the front seven forced a "sack" with quick blitz pressure.
With only about 10 seconds left in the half, the Wildcats hit paydirt. Hanna ran out of options on a pass in the pocket, but found Crosby as an outlet. Wide-open in the flat, Crosby dashed towards the pylon from the 20-yard line. With a Bulldog firing towards him, Crosby broke out a beautiful dodge move. His move earned him the extra space needed to fight into the end zone. Crosby's score and the successful extra point sent the Wildcats into the brief break on a high note, leading 28-2.
During a halftime interview, the offensive line stressed the importance of working together. Nick Schwitzgebel, Tony Georges, Owen Keane, Ashton Montgomery, and Gus Salopek gelled well in the opening test and made the four touchdowns possible.
The offensive line's performance gave space and time for Hanna to run when necessary, too.
"Offensively, Griffin did a very nice job with all of his communication. Considering that was a half, I'm not sure how many yards he had, but it was a lot," Kyle said. "There are times when he took off running, and the referees are blowing the whistle quicker tonight because it's a scrimmage, but he had some nice runs. I thought that was nice."
The second-teamers for both teams played in the third quarter on a running clock. Overall, the Wildcats played solidly on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs managed to score, but only after a prolonged drive. A number of Wildcats, such as Jaylyn Norris, played well on defense.
On offense, Pat Keane drew the snaps as the QB2. The senior orchestrated the offense well, finding open wideouts, including Billy Spear on a pass to end the scrimmage. Ryan Waldron tore off a few nice runs, showcasing the depth that Saint Ignatius has at running back.
At the end of the Jamboree, Head Coach Chuck Kyle '69 spoke to his team. The Wildcats were very happy to begin game week.
"Right before the scrimmage, we said, 'In about two hours, we'll be talking about game week. What's the best way to get ready for a game? Play solid, very good football, so you're confident for the start of game week.' I think that's what we did," Kyle said. "There are things to work on obviously but Canton McKinley is a very good football team with good athletes. Overall, our communication was very good with the kids. We had no clock problems, plays were being called right, and the execution was good.
"It's good, it was a good feeling at the end, and all of the kids knew it. We've got an extremely big challenge in the next 10 weeks. But the kids realize we can play with anybody. Now we have to play."
Wide receivers coach Jack Hyland '14 also gave his men a motivational speech after the game. Hyland spoke about the importance of coming to practice every day ready to work. As he said, the teams who work hardest in the offseason don't always win the crown. The champion is decided by the men who work hardest and smartest during the regular season and postseason, and the ones who execute on the field after working on the practice field and the weight room.
"Doing the little things every day [is key]," Cmiel said. "Coach Hyland says chop wood, carry water. Do the little things, take it one week at a time, and we'll get back."
If the Wildcats do just that, they might just find their way back to Canton in 16 weeks.