With rain starting to fall on a humid Akron night, Saint Ignatius Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle ’69 paused for a moment before placing Friday evening’s win over Archbishop Hoban in perspective.
“Yes, this is one of our best comebacks of all-time,” said Coach Kyle. “This is one of the all-time all-times. It is. Against a team like that, a team that’s the odds-on favorite to be state champions in Division II? To be down like that, the kids just played Ignatius football, honestly.”
Trailing the Knights 35-10 in the third quarter, all hope seemed lost. But the Wildcats never lost faith. In the greatest comeback in Saint Ignatius football history, the Wildcats fired out on a 32-0 run. A last-ditch Hoban effort fell flat, and the Wildcats ended Hoban’s 31-game winning streak.
Of the Knights’ four defeats during its four-peat state title run, two have come at the hands of the Wildcats.
The game began on a high note. The Wildcats received the opening kickoff and marched right down the field. Led by starting quarterback Griffin Hanna, the Wildcats cut through the Knights’ defense with authority. The senior signalcaller completed the opening drive with a beautiful pass to Henry Cook for a touchdown. The senior wideout ran a flag route from the slot and hauled in the pass perfectly.
That was the last highlight for the Wildcats for a little while.
Hoban’s offense started to gain traction later in the first quarter. A clutch Shane Hamm third-down conversion (on a controversial spot) set the stage for the first of several Deamonte Trayanum touchdowns. The Arizona State commit dashed into the end zone for a 17-yard score.
The Knights took the lead after stopping the Wildcats. Hamm managed to push through for a touchdown on a quarterback sneak. A fumble on the ensuing kickoff gave the Knights the ball in the waning seconds in the opening stanza.
Less than two minutes into the second quarter, the Knights cashed in on the turnover. Trayanum found paydirt on a 14-yard dash, extending the lead to 14. The advantage grew to 21 less than a minute later. Hoban’s defense forced a fumble in the backfield, and returned it 30 yards to the house. With 9:26 left to play in the second, the Wildcats found themselves trailing, 28-7.
The Wildcats’ offense did not get disheartened. The Wildcats moved down the field before stalling at the Hoban 36-yard line. Declan Mangan trotted into the game with his big boot. The junior hit a bomb from 53 yards that would have been good from 60 yards. Mangan’s 3-pointer narrowed the gap to 28-10.
The Saint Ignatius defense responded with a timely stop. Michael McNamara burst into the backfield to hold Hoban at bay and give the Wildcats the ball back.
In the later stages of the half, the Wildcats started moving down the field. Hanna moved the squad down the gridiron. The Wildcats looked to be in great position to chip off more of the lead. But Hoban stepped in front of a pass and ended the half suddenly. The Wildcats trailed, 28-10, entering the break.
Some may doubt the Saint Ignatius coaching staff, but there is a reason the Wildcats have won 11 OHSAA State Championships. Under Kyle’s direction, the Wildcats have one of the best coaching staff in the state, with brilliant minds leading the way. At halftime, the coaching staff made a number of adjustments.
Most notably, 11-time state champion Offensive Coordinator Nick Restifo Hon. 19 handed over the playbook to his quarterback.
“He made playcalls,” Restifo said after the game. “We practiced it, but he made the playcalls and he made the plays. He deserves a lot of credit.”
In addition, Defensive Coordinator Ryan Franzinger ’02 moved from the pressbox to the field to call the defense. His defensive adjustments changed the course of the contest, without a doubt.
Even so, as inclement weather threatened, the outlook became bleaker at the start of the second half. The Knights quickly rolled down the field before finding the end zone again. This time, Trayanum took a pass to the flat, found the edge, and sped 37 yards for a touchdown. Hoban led, 35-10.
But the Wildcats did not lose faith.
The first spark of the comeback flew just 37 seconds after Trayanum’s touchdown. An unlikely hero stepped to the fore – Alec LaSpina.
The junior ran a deep post against single coverage. Hanna lofted a perfect pass to LaSpina, who caught the ball past a leaping defender. LaSpina cut to the outside and galloped the rest of the way for a touchdown. The 71-yard touchdown, the first catch of LaSpina’s varsity career, changed the momentum of the game and spurred the start of one of the most incredible comebacks that Saint Ignatius fans have ever seen.
After another stop on defense, the Wildcats drew to within 11 points just a couple minutes later. The Wildcats transitioned to a hurry-up offense, which worked. After a few nice plays, Hanna found himself scrambling in the pocket. Running out of options, Hanna desperately looked for a way to avoid a sack. With Hoban defenders pulling him down, Hanna tossed a pass to a waiting James Crosby in the flat. The senior used a block from Jake Lang to dash untouched into the end zone for a critical touchdown. The Wildcats only trailed, 35-24, with 5:04 left to play, plenty of time.
“What happened right before halftime is we ran the hurry-up offense and moved the ball. When the offense went right out there and moved the ball, that gave the defense time to settle down,” said Kyle. “We said, ‘We’re going to get points no matter what.’ Touchdowns or field goals, even if it’s 50 yards, I don’t care, because Declan can make them. Every time we get the ball, let’s get points.”
Yet again, the Wildcats’ defense stood strong, giving the offense another opportunity to catch up. The Wildcats did just that. Declan Mangan fired up the ol’ leg again, this time from an incredible 56 yards out. Mangan’s money kick now stands as the second longest kick in school history, behind only Matthew Trickett’s booming 59-yarder in 2017. Mangan should get some Division I looks after his great performance.
The third quarter ended with a Wildcats’ defensive stand and then a missed field goal. The Wildcats still trailed, 35-27, but the momentum sat on the Saint Ignatius sidelines.
Just a few minutes into the fourth, the Wildcats’ special teams came up with a huge play, the latest in a long line of incredible plays by the fourth down army this year. Unfortunately, the Wildcats’ couldn’t capitalize, missing a 49-yard field goal. Even so, the Wildcats still felt quite confident.
Franzinger’s men changed the game on Hoban’s next drive. Forced to scramble out of the pocket because of a McNamara pass rush, Hamm fled to look for a checkdown. But before he could release the ball, Rico Levert tracked him down. Levert forced a fumble and Bennett Adler quickly pounced on it. The Wildcats suddenly had the ball first and 10 from the Hoban 15-yard line.
Only a few plays later, Ashton Montgomery plowed a huge lane for Jack Welcsh. Aided by a Sam Daugstrup block, Welcsh charged up the middle. The senior back surpassed the first down marker, but was met around the 2-yard line. Daugstrup saved the day, pushing Welcsh into the end zone for a touchdown.
Despite the touchdown, the Wildcats still trailed by two. The visitors dialed up an excellent play for the 2-point conversion. Hanna handed it to Welcsh on a run to the right. Welcsh gave it off to Henry Cook dashing to the opposite side on a fancy reverse, and aided by a Nick Schwitzgebel seal block, Cook fired into the end zone untouched. The score stood at 35-35 with 5:14 minutes to play.
With plenty of momentum on their side, the Wildcats’ defense continued to attack Hoban with ferocity. In perhaps the story of the game, the Wildcats’ defensive line exploited a tiring Hoban offensive line. While the Knights’ offensive line dominated in the first half, adjustments by the Saint Ignatius defense and excellent conditioning paid off in spades. Anthony Gerace, finishing with 4 tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack, played a large part in the success.
“Gerace is an experienced, very good defensive lineman,” Coach Kyle said. “We started to move him around a little bit and play him over the center. He started to get some seams. He was pretty good.”
Another man who played a huge role was Sam Daugstrup. The 6’5, 245-pound Division I prospect played defensive line for the first time since his sophomore season. Daugstrup looked great in doing so, notching a pair of tackles.
“It was great. Any way I can help the team,” said Daugstrup. “Wherever they need me, I’ll go. It doesn’t matter, as long as our team is winning and getting it done, I’ll play wherever they need me on the field.”
Hoban once again failed to move the ball down the field on the next drive, with a three-and-out for the second straight time. Aidan Hubbard tabbed a tackle for loss and two incomplete passes forced a Hoban punt. The Wildcats got the ball back near midfield with 3:57 remaining.
A Hanna to Cmiel connection for 10 yards and a pass interference call on Hoban pushed the Wildcats down the field to the 23-yard line, well within Mangan range. But a holding call forced the Wildcats back. Facing 3rd and 19, the Wildcats dialed up a bold play.
Hanna went for it all on a pass downfield to Cmiel. Running a fly route in single coverage without safety help on that side of the field, Cmiel came open and Hanna found him in stride. Cmiel caught it easily and strode into the end zone, giving the Wildcats the lead for the first time since 10:20 in the first half. The extra point set the score at 42-35 with two minutes left.
“Griffin got banged up last week, but the next day he said, ‘I’m going to be okay.’ We decided to build him up all week, and he took some shots tonight, too. But in crunch time, he put the ball right there,” Coach Kyle said. “We felt that when we went to the hurry-up offense, that threw them off a bit. At that point, Griffin had to handle a lot. And you saw what he did, some great things.”
The Knights refused to surrender. Senior Ja’Sean Cogburn played the hero for the Knights, finding an opening on the ensuing kickoff return and dashing 96 yards for a touchdown. Hoban’s crowd suddenly came to life, only needing an extra point to tie. But nothing is every easy in a battle of the titans.
Hoban attempted to tie the game on an extra point. In incredible fashion, the Wildcats leaped up and blocked it. However, after a long deliberation, the referees called a penalty on the Wildcats. The foul sent the ball to the 1-yard line, leading Hoban’s Tim Tyrrell to attempt a 2-point conversion for the win.
Running behind his big uglies, Hamm looked to sneak up the middle. But in stepped the man of the hour, linebacker Michael McNamara. The team captain dove at Hamm’s right side, and the offensive linemen fell into Hamm. The Wildcats held off Hamm, as the referees signaled after about 20 seconds of talking with each other.
The Wildcats recovered the onside kick, ran out the clock, and so ended the largest comeback in Saint Ignatius football history.
Looking at the stats, the Wildcats outgained the Knights in the second half, 257-155. Griffin Hanna completed 18-of-35 passes for 270 yards and 4 touchdowns in an incredible effort. Cmiel, Cook, Jack Dunstan, LaSpina, Lang, and Welcsh all hauled in passes, led by Cmiel’s 6 catches for 86 yards. While the Knights dominated time of possession, 30:20-17:40, the quick strike Saint Ignatius offense proved unstoppable.
“We just took it play-by-play,” Schwitgebel said. “We made at corrections at halftime, did our job, and took care of business.
“We knew the second half was ours, which is what we talked about in the locker room,” said Griffin Hanna. “We kept our heads up. We came out here and showed why we’re the Saint Ignatius Wildcats. It was a great team effort, everyone stepped up on both sides of the ball.”
After trailing 35-10, the Wildcats scored 42 unanswered points in what stands as the craziest comeback in Saint Ignatius history. The next best comeback occurred on September 6, 2009. Clayton Northmont opened a 20-0 lead before the Wildcats tallied 27 straight points to win a 27-20 ballgame. Brian Hoyer’s orchestration of a 19-point comeback vs. Massillon in a 29-21 win in 2003 also stands in the pantheon of top games.
But the Wildcats’ return from a 25-point deficit now stands as the best in the 106-year history of Saint Ignatius football.
“That was a classic all-timer, as quality of an opponent as there is in the state of Ohio,” said Coach Kyle. “Our kids just kept battling. The Wildcat nation should be proud tonight. Our kids represented the school extremely well.”