Thunder and lightning struck on Saturday evening.
Not in the sky, but on the field. Since they were youngsters at St. Christopher Grade School in Rocky River, Jack Welcsh and Connor Cmiel have been dubbed by their parents as "Thunder and Lightning," a deadly combination of power and speed.
The two seniors teamed up for 294 all-purpose yards, powering an invigorated Saint Ignatius team to a 42-7 win over the Rockledge Raiders from Florida. On the defensive side, Anthony Gerace and Michael McNamara returned to form a similar one-two punch, combining for 6 tackles.
The victory is much-needed for the Wildcats. Not only does the win even out the Cats at 3-3, but it helps with secondary points, as Rockledge entered with a 5-0 record. Joe Eitel now has the Wildcats in the eighth and final playoff spot in Division I, Region 1 with four games left to play.
"It was a tough week after the loss, but I give total credit to our kids and coaches. At just the halfway point of the season, we have so much left to go," said Head Coach Chuck Kyle '69. "Looking at tonight, this was an undefeated team. You start talking about computer points – it helps when you beat an undefeated team. The kids saw the opportunity to do this and did it."
The Wildcats believe this could be the start of something special.
"This is the statement we'll use the rest of the year," Gerace said. "This is the game we come back on. This will be the game when we switched it on and started our state championship run."
From the start on Saturday at Byers Field, the Wildcats played with passion and fire.
On just the sixth play of the game, the Wildcats found paydirt. On third down, Griffin Hanna scrambled out of the pocket, looking for an outlet. Hanna found the perfect one in Jack Welcsh in the flat at the Wildcats' 42 yard-line. Using blocks from Henry Cook and Jack Dunstan, Welcsh jetted the rest of the way for six. Rory McConville's extra point set the score at 7-0 just 90 seconds in.
Rockledge's first two drives ended with a loss of downs and a punt, while the Wildcats' next two drives also ended prematurely with punts. The Raiders scored their first, and what turned out to be their only, touchdown of the night on the first drive of the second quarter.
After driving meticulously downfield, Rockledge handed the ball off to Ladarius Tennison at the 11-yard line. The Auburn commit did the rest, evading tacklers en route to a game-tying score. Playing both ways, Tennison was all over the field.
Less than two minutes later, the Wildcats responded. On the sixth play of the drive, Hanna faked it to the running back on a playaction before looking deep. With Connor Cmiel in one-on-one coverage on a post route, Hanna lofted it deep to his fellow senior. Cmiel caught it with ease for a 39-yard strike.
"It was one-on-one. When we lined up in big formations, they had to bring their safeties a little over, so you're getting one-on-one," said Coach Kyle. "You like those odds with Connor Cmiel. We took those shots and we got them."
McConville tacked on the extra point for a 14-7 advantage. The Wildcats never relinquished the lead.
The Wildcats' defense came up with a great stop on the Raiders' next drive, with Emmett Hanna playing out of his mind. The junior recorded three of the tackles and assisted on a sack with Bennett Adler.
On the Wildcats' next offensive drive, Hanna started things off with a 23-yard connection with Jake Lang. Welcsh then picked up 5 yards on two runs to set up a third and five. The Cats dialed up another PA pass to Cmiel, who ran a fly route down the left side of the field. Hanna tossed a perfect ball to Cmiel, who caught it easily for a 42-yard touchdown grab.
"It was one-on-one coverage, and there was no safety help over the top," Cmiel said. "Griffin read it perfect and gave me great throws. It was perfect."
With 2:54 left in the half, Rockledge might have scored to narrow the gap. Instead, the Wildcats' defense made a statement. Adler tackled Mike Alves Jr. for a loss on first down and then held him to two yards on second down. On third down, a Rockledge pass fell incomplete. So the Wildcats got the ball back on their own 40-yard line with 1:19 left in the half and three timeouts.
Hanna wasted little time in marching his team downfield. Lang corraled a 37-yard pass on the second play of the drive, placing the Wildcats deep in Raiders' territory. Hanna then completed passes of 8 and 13 yards to Jack Dunstan, setting up first and goal from the 2-yard line. Hanna did the rest with his feet, using a great seal block from Nick Lamirand to find the end zone.
At halftime, the Wildcats enjoyed a commanding 28-7 lead. The Wildcats had not led at half since Week 1 vs. Loyola.
Any hopes of a Rockledge comeback died early in the second half. On the opening drive of the third quarter, the Raiders fumbled and the Wildcats jumped on top of it. After a penalty, the Wildcats assumed control at their own 40-yard line.
"We had a lot more energy, we played as a team and flew to the ball. It was a lot better overall," Gerace said of the defense. "Last week, we knew the reason we lost was because we couldn't get any pass rush, so on third down, we were just going for it and we pressured the QB."
An 8-yard Cmiel run and 13-yard Hanna pass to Dunstan got the Wildcats across midfield. A few plays later, Hanna scrambled to his right out of the pocket. On an amazing throw, Hanna fired a bullet just past the Rockledge defender to Henry Cook in the corner of the end zone on a simply spectacular throw. Cook caught it and got both feet down in a pro-level catch.
Another successful McConville PAT, and the Wildcats led, 35-7.
The defenses took over for the remainder of the half. The Raiders managed just 9 yards on their next two drives, and the Wildcats punted on a three-and-out. Enter the special teams.
On a Rockledge punt with 2:30 left in the third, Merick Hartley looked to block the punt. The Rockledge punter fumbled the snap and Hartley made a Waterboy-esque tackle of the punter. Thanks to Hartley's huge hit, the Wildcats started at the Rockledge 18-yard line.
After a few runs ended the quarter, the Wildcats scored from in close early in the fourth quarter. Thunder struck again, as Welcsh fired through two Raiders for a touchdown. McConville's seventh PAT of the evening provided the final score of 42-7.
"Jack ends up on defense, and he makes a lot of plays there, too. He loves that. When they were starting to send a lot of people, Jack was patient and got a good read and made cuts," said Kyle. "Those cutbacks were really good. With what they were doing, you had to get a read and find a cutback. That got the running game going."
Welcsh and Cmiel each tabbed two touchdowns, accounting for 24 of the 42 points. Thunder and Lightning combined for 194 all-purpose yards, close to Rockledge's 238 yards of offense. Griffin Hanna had another great day, completing 16-of-28 passes for 323 yards and 4 touchdowns. When Hanna needed a picture-perfect pass, he delivered in spades.
On defense, McNamara and Gerace made a huge difference. The Wildcats sacked the QB three times on Saturday, and pressured him many more times. Emmett Hanna deserves plenty of praise for his role on defense, as the junior registered a game-high 10.5 tackles, adding 0.5 sacks and 0.5 tackles for loss.
"A lot of kudos to the defense. They made a huge step," said Coach Kyle. "I love how we came out defensively. We showed something tonight. That offense is good, their tailback is going to Auburn, and they have other Division I guys out there. We contained their offense pretty well. And we were getting field position."
The special teams also played quite well. McConville's 7-for-7 night on extra points highlighted the evening. Declan Mangan unleashed his foot cannon, averaging 41.3 yards on three punts. All seven of his kickoffs landed in the end zone, neutralizing Tennison, who's a Cmiel-like return man.
"The kicking game made a big impact with punting and kickoffs and extra points," said Coach Kyle. "They didn't have much field position the whole night. Make the other team drive 80 yards or more, and we did that a lot tonight."
All in all, it was a complete, much-needed team win.
A large opponent now looms on the schedule – rival St. Edward. The Eagles will enter First Federal Lakewood Stadium next Saturday with a 5-1 record.
"It's a big win to get back on track. After two straight losses, it was nice to get a win under our belt with Ed's week this week," Cmiel said. "Big week coming up."