Even with a significant injury list, the Saint Ignatius Wildcats managed to beat the Solon Comets, 42-14, in the opening round of the OHSAA Division I football playoffs on Friday at George Finnie Stadium in Berea.
With the convincing victory, the Cats advance to the Regional Quarterfinal, where they will face off against the Euclid Panthers.
The Wildcats won the coin toss and deferred the ball to the Comets. Solon’s opening drive went perfectly for the Wildcat defense, as they forced a 3-and-out. The punt then was a moon shot that ended up going for -2 yards, leaving Joe Pfaff and the offense with excellent starting field position for the opening drive.
The opening play for Pfaff was a fumbled snap but the Cats quickly recovered on 3rd and 18. Pfaff threw one of his signature darts to senior wide receiver Colin Wiehn, sending the offense to the Comet 5-yard line. Marty Lenehan then bull-rushed into the endzone for a 2-yard touchdown to give the Cats an early lead, 7-0 after Mangan’s PAT kick.
The next drive for the Comets was exactly the same as the first, with the Saint Ignatius defensive line holding the Solon offense once again. Pfaff took over once again in Comet territory, and on the second play of the drive, Pfaff cannoned a ball to junior wide receiver Steve Bodamer for a 48-yard touchdown, pushing the Cats lead up to 14-0 with 5:29 to go in the first quarter.
After another quick appearance on the field by the Solon offense, the Comets faked as if they were going for it on 4th and 2 before quarterback Pat McQuaide stepped back and punted the ball. The ball was blocked and ricocheted out of bounds, allowing Pfaff and his offense coming back onto the field.
After a 15-yard gain by Lenehan, Pfaff again found Bodamer, this time with the beautiful play ending at the 1-yard line. Joe Pfaff then used his legs to motor on into the endzone on a QB sneak for another quick score for the Cats. Saint Ignatius led 21-0 with 1:50 left in the first quarter.
With Aidan Hubbard making some crucial tackles for a total of -4 yards on two plays, the Comets went 3-and-out again. The Wildcats ran a few times for little gain, resulting in Mangan’s first punt of the game. The Solon return man watched the ball as it bounced toward him and clipped his leg. Sean Cook was on the recovery right away, giving the ball back to the Cats in a good spot to get more points early. The recovery and ensuing drive did not lead to any points, as missed field goal resulted due to the wind and narrower college goal posts. Even still, it was a smart, heads-up play by Cook. It’s the type of play that can decide ballgames in the playoffs.
The Solon drive that followed can largely be summed up by their star running back Khalil Eichelberger running wild. He either carried or received the ball for three straight plays worth of big gains. The Cats seemed to slow the runaway freight train, forcing a 4th and 5 deep in their own territory. The Comets kept the offense on the field and ended up with points, as a McQuaide connection to Caesar Salerno got the visitors on the board. The Wildcats held a 21-7 advantage with 4:28 to go in the first half.
Lenehan then went back to work, as he broke four tackles for a big gain after a great block by Becker. It wasn’t enough, though, to add more points before half. Pfaff tried to make a tough pass across his body while on the run that ultimately fell incomplete. Mangan strolled onto the field to attempt a 40+ yard field goal again with the wind blowing right at him, and this one unfortunately missed. The first half concluded then with some drama, as a ball from Eichelberger came loose, but was recovered by Solon. McQuaide then got sacked and Eichelberger took a shot to end the half at 21-7 Cats.
After deferring the ball at the start of the game, the Wildcats’ offense began the second half as explosive as they had the first half. To no surprise, Lenehan bounced off a few tackles before coming down into Solon territory at the 34-yard line. Pfaff then dished the ball off to Becker for a little screenplay that ended up moving the ball all the way down to the Comet 16-yard line. On third and goal, Lenehan shot into the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown. On a roll, the Cats led 28-7.
Unfortunately the good vibes for the Cats got put to a halt as a Wildcat defender left the game via stretcher. On behalf of everyone on the SIBN, we wish #48 a speedy recovery. The defense didn’t let the loss get to them though, Taliak nearly picked off a ball on 3rd down that forced a Solon punt.
After a tough sack, the Wildcat drive quickly closed as well, and Mangan booted the ball back to Solon. Just like the last drive, Taliak made a great play, this time in the form of a tackle on Eichelberger for a loss of 2. After a big-time scramble from McQuaide, Solon was moving the chains, especially on 4th and 3 with a rocket pass over the top from McQuaide for a big first down. Bennett Adler made his presence known after batted down a pass on a screen, but McQuaide got the better of the defense on the next play, as he made a big pass to move the ball to the Wildcat 1-yard line. Eichelberger then rushed in for an easy 1-yard touchdown to narrow the deficit to 28-14. Solon was then unsuccessful with an onside kick as the ball, so the next kick was their routine kickoff.
Lenehan rushed for three straight plays for over 3 yards before a monster 46-yard run to the Comet 10-yard line. Naturally, Lenehan got the ball on the next play and scored for the 10-yard touchdown, stretching the lead to 35-14 Wildcats.
“You gotta read the line and then feel it up to the linebackers,” Lenehan says. “You need to take it all in at once. We have our reads, the coaches really help us with that. They tell you who to lock in on and it really helped to make it easy.”
The next two defensive plays were quite remarkable to watch, as Snyder nearly intercepted a McQuaide pass, and then on the next play, Cole Smith picked the ball off and moved the offense to the opposing 20-yard line.
After a flag for holding, Pfaff found senior wide receiver Jonathan McNeil for a 23-yard touchdown. The Wildcats possessed a commanding 42-14 lead with 7:04 to go in the game.
More quick work by the Saint Ignatius defense led the Comets to punt the ball to the 50-yard line. Jaxon French came in to close the game and handed the ball off to a mix of running backs including Lenehan, Anthony Santagata, and Ryan Waldron. The defense held out the rest of the game, and the Wildcats finished off a 42-14 win.
Looking at the stats, the Wildcats outgained the Comets, 370-260, with an impressive 180 yards on the ground. Lenehan finished the day with 171 yards, his second straight game hitting the century mark.
“The offensive line really stepped up opening up holes. They had a great day,” says Lenehan. “The last couple weeks, they’ve been helping me out by opening up big holes and making it really easy for me.”
In his first playoff start, Pfaff put on an impressive show, completing 10-of-16 passes for 184 yards and 2 touchdowns, along with a rushing score. The wide receiver corps stepped up, particularly Bodamer with 2 catches for 82 yards, Becker with 3 receptions for 34 yards, Colin Wiehn with 2 hauls for 35 yards, and McNeil with his 23-yard TD catch.
“It was amazing, the atmosphere was great. You can’t be nervous,” Pfaff says. “You need to control what you can control. I just went through my reads and kept myself calm. It was awesome. This is a great team win, we needed it. We’re moving on, and it’ll be a good week of football.”
The defense also played outstanding, winning the turnover battle, 2-0. Taliak led the defense with an outstanding game with 6.5 tackles and 1 tackle for loss. Juniors Chris Aerni and Gavin Berger stepped up with a combined 8 tackles and 3 tackles for loss. As a whole, the defense tallied 7 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and 4 pass breakups.
Now, the Wildcats will prepare for Euclid. The Panthers defeated Elyria on Friday, 21-0, at Euclid Community Stadium, also the site for next week’s Regional Quarterfinal.
“It feels great. We really needed this,” says Lenehan. “But now we’re 0-0. We have another week, we’re 0-0.”