In what might have been the final game between legendary Northeast Ohio coaches Steve Trivisonno and Chuck Kyle '69, the Cardinals squeaked by with a win in a thrilling ballgame that lasted nearly three hours.
While Saint Ignatius entered the fourth quarter with a lead, Mentor scored 21 points in the final stanza to best the Wildcats, 38-31, on Friday at Jerome T. Osborne Sr. Stadium in a game that many will remember for a while.
The loss undoubtedly stings for the Wildcats, sending the team to 1-1 on the year. But positives abound from the win. Most notably, Connor Cmiel delivered one of the most thrilling performances by a Wildcat in recent memory.
"For everybody here, it was an entertaining and exciting game, that's for sure," said Wildcats' head coach Chuck Kyle. "We'll have more of those. I like the way our kids fought every second."
The game featured wall-to-wall action from start to finish. The excitement began nearly immediately, on Mentor's second drive of the game. Looking for a receiver in single coverage near the Wildcats' sideline, the Cardinals tossed an interception to Charlie Kinzel. Great positioning and nice hands by Kinzel made the play possible.
Just a couple of minutes later, the Wildcats found a way to get a touchdown. Griffin Hanna pushed towards to the end zone on a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line. The ball was poked from his arm, falling to the turf. An alert Nick Schwitzgebel fell on the ball, giving Saint Ignatius the lead. The extra point was blocked, leaving the score at 6-0 with 5:06 left in the first.
The Cardinals did not take long to respond. Mentor QB Ian Kipp found a seam on the first play of the drive and exploited it for a 70-yard gain. A couple of plays later, Mentor's talented running back Brian Trobel found paydirt on a short touchdown run. The extra point gave Mentor a 7-6 lead, but not for long.
On the ensuing kickoff, Cmiel's magical night began. The senior took a kickoff at Saint Ignatius 16-yard line on the nearside hash. Cmiel utilized his strong blocking and galloped to the far side of the field. Cmiel found a seam and used his trademark speed to fly past Mentor's kick coverage. Cmiel was barely, if ever, touched en route to an 85-yard return.
Mentor's offense answered the call to score. Trobel punished his way to paydirt, firing up the middle and breaking tackles en route to the end zone on a 16-yard dash. With the extra point, Mentor led, 14-13, an advantage that lasted into the second quarter.
Following a stalled Wildcats' drive, Mentor marched down the field. Backed up inside the red zone, the Wildcats' defense stiffened. The Cardinals had to settle for a 33-yard field goal, sending the lead to 17-13 lead with 9:10 left in the half.
The Wildcats responded with a punishing, physical drive. Relying heavily on Jack Welcsh, the Wildcats marched methodically down the field. At the end of a journey that lasted 5:30, Griffin Hanna carried the ball into the end zone on a 1-yard designed quarterback run. After taking a timeout, the Wildcats decided to go for two. Jake Lang ran a quick buttonhook and, seeing him open, Hanna threaded it past the extended arms of a pass rusher into the Lang's breadbasket. The successful 2-pointer gave the Cats a 21-17 lead.
The half ended with the same score after the teams traded unsuccessful drives. The Wildcats had plenty of reason to feel good heading into break.
The men of the blue and gold had one more reason to feel confident early in the second half – #8.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, Mentor apparently did not learn its lesson. You just don't kick the ball to Connor Cmiel. The Cardinals' kickoff found Cmiel, who caught the ball at about the 20-yard line. Sensing an opening, Cmiel dashed towards the middle of the field. Finding a seam, he only had to make one man miss, and he did. His speed outmatched the good angles the Cardinals took.
Unfortunately, the referees called a block in the back on a controversial penalty that rightly infuriated Wildcats fans. Nevertheless, the Wildcats took the ball at about the Cardinals' 40-yard line. Power running by Jack Welcsh and smart completions by Hanna marched the Wildcats down the field. But a good stop on third down by Mentor's defense forced the visitors into 4th and goal from the 3-yard line. The Cats opted for a Declan Mangan field goal, upping the lead to 24-17.
Mentor looked to respond on the next drive. The Cardinals fired down the field, but a third-down sack by Bennett Adler forced a Mentor field goal. Once again, the Saint Ignatius special teams stepped up. Merick Hartley blocked the kick and the ball fell into the hands of who else but Connor Cmiel. He dashed down the Saint Ignatius sidelines past an unsuspecting Mentor special teams unit, dashing 80 yards to paydirt. The incredible touchdown sent the Saint Ignatius faithful and sidelines into a frenzy.
After the extra point, the Wildcats led by two scores, 31-17.
"They were bracketing Connor in the secondary, so they knew who he was, but he finds ways to make huge plays," Kyle said. "That's who he is, and that's why he's out there on kickoff returns and as many things as we can. He's the guy who will find a way. Everyone in this stadium knows about him now."
With five minutes left, Mentor's offense became methodical. The Cardinals picked up yards in short bunches, taking what the Wildcats gave them. At the end of the quarter, Saint Ignatius stopped Mentor on two straight pushes up the middle from in close. Mentor had the ball on the 2-yard line on 3rd and goal at the end of the quarter.
The Wildcats held on once again on the first play of the quarter. With fourth and goal from the 1-yard line. In what was a turning point in the game, the Cardinals ran the option. Expecting to see it, the Wildcats had a tackler in perfect position at the 2, but Trobel bounced off and forced his way into the end zone. The fourth-down touchdown started Mentor's 21-0 run.
Just two minutes later, Mentor tied the game after a Saint Ignatius turnover. Trobel pounded the rock in from the 5-yard line to make the Wildcats pay. With 9:18 to play, the game hung in the balance.
After an unsuccessful Wildcats' drive, Mentor scored on its third straight drive. At the end of an 8-play, 67-yard drive, Kipp scored his first touchdown of the day. The junior pushed his way into the end zone from two yards out, giving the hosts a 38-31 lead.
On the ensuing Wildcats' drive, Griffin Hanna took a big hit on a huge sack by the Cardinals, forcing him out of the game. Hanna was examined and cleared, but the Wildcats could not convert a 3rd and 12 without him in the game. The Cats punted it back to the Cards.
Mentor managed to pick up two first downs before the Saint Ignatius defense shut them down. Burning the team's remaining two timeouts, the Wildcats stopped the Cardinals on third and fourth downs on an Emmett Hanna tackle of Trobel and a Charlie Kinzel pass deflection.
With 45 seconds to play and no timeouts from the Saint Ignatius 31-yard line, the Wildcats faced quite a challenge.
On the first play of the drive, Cmiel made a huge appearance. The senior caught a pass from Hanna and rallied 47 yards down the field. Suddenly, the Wildcats had 1st and 10 from the Mentor 22-yard line.
After an incompletion, Hanna lofted a pass to Jake Lang in the end zone on the nearside boundary. Lang hauled in the pass, but his knee touched the white line before he had full possession. The Wildcats' fans did not like the outcome, but the official made the correct call. Lang was out of bounds, though not by much. A few inches, and Lang scores a game-saving touchdown. (And, yes, the Wildcats would have gone for two instead of trying to tie it, Coach Kyle said.)
On the next play, Hanna found Welcsh for a beautiful completion inside the 10-yard line. Alas, the referee threw a flag for a holding call on the right side of the Wildcats' line. The devastating penalty spelled the death knell of the comeback, pushing the Cats back to the Mentor 40-yard line. The last pass of the game fell incomplete on the turf thanks to a stiff pass rush.
The Cardinals walked out of the JTO with the 38-31 win.
"With no timeouts left, we went down the field. I wish we had about 10 more seconds, because we had to use the timeouts to get a chance. Our kids are willing to battle it out, so that's good, but there are things to work on," Kyle said afterward.
In the end, penalties and mistakes hurt the Wildcats. The officials penalized Saint Ignatius eight times for 126 yards (versus three flags for 36 yards for Mentor). The Wildcats also turned the ball over twice.
"Every little play counts. Penalties hurt us. We have to learn from that," said Coach Kyle. "They had 21 unanswered points, we can't have that. Mentor is a good team, they're gonna score. We need to turn around and get it back."
Leading the way on offense, Hanna finished with 105 passing yards, finding five different receivers. Welcsh topped the team with 100 rushing yards. On defense, Aidan Conway and Merick Hartley led the Wildcats with 5.5 tackles. While Kipp and Trobel tallied 137 and 130 rushing yards, the Wildcats did have 10 tackles for loss. The visitors also broke up four passes and intercepted Kipp once, limiting him through the air to 174 yards. The defensive line rushed Kipp well, as Adler tabbed 1.5 sacks and Anthony Gerace sacked Kipp once and notched 2.5 tackles for loss.
But above all other players on both teams, Cmiel shined brightest. Without the controversial penalty, Cmiel would have had two kickoff returns for touchdowns, becoming the first Wildcat since Tim McVey '13 to accomplish the feat. Add in a lengthy return off a field goal block and a 47-yard catch, and Cmiel's night was one to remember. He'll be fielding calls from Division I coaches this week, no doubt.
The loss is certainly a difficult one to swallow, but the Wildcats have no time to wallow in the pain. Four-time reigning state champ Archbishop Hoban looms in six days.
For Wildcats' fans, Coach Kyle had one message after the game – don't lose the faith.
"I hope people who want to see exciting football come to see us. We'll provide exciting football," Kyle said. "We can't always guarantee a win. But it'll be exciting football. Don't lose faith."