Familiar foes will once again meet in the postseason on Friday.
The Saint Ignatius Wildcats and Euclid Panthers will do battle in the Regional Quarterfinal, facing off in the playoffs for the seventh time, and the second time in four seasons.
The Wildcats enter with a 2-3 record and a renewed confidence after a 42-14 rout of Solon, a complete team win. The Panthers carry a 5-2 mark into the contest, fresh off back-to-back wins over Elyria.
All-time, the series advantage sits 14-1 in favor of Saint Ignatius, including 6-0 on the postseason. But make no mistake, this is a talented, hungry Euclid squad led by Jeff Rotsky.
SAINT IGNATIUS OFFENSE VS. EUCLID DEFENSE
The story of the playoff opener may have been the juniors on the offense. Joe Pfaff enjoyed a breakout game, completing 10-of-16 passes for 184 yards and 2 touchdowns, and adding a rushing score. Marty Lenehan broke the century mark for the second straight week, with 171 yards on 19 carries and 3 impressive TDs. And of course, Steven Bodamer broke out for 2 catches for 82 yards, both on long balls, including a 48-yard TD in the first quarter.
Injuries have affected but not haunted the Wildcats so far. John Becker, Colin Wiehn, and Jonathan McNeil all stepped up at wideout this past week, tallying clutch catches.
And of course, the offensive line has been stout. Ashton Montgomery, Brian Keane, and William Witalis have all improved over the course of the year, learning from seniors Gus Salopek and Carter Zimmerman.
“We’re starting to identify a bit with the run game, and it’s balanced out,” says Head Coach Chuck Kyle '69. “If we can cause the opponent to be concerned about the run, that helps the pass. Solon changed their defense to more of a run-stopping philosophy, and we still got good yardage running, but also we got big gains and 2 TDs passing. The passing game helps the running game and vice versa, I hope."
For the Wildcats to continue along in the playoffs, the juniors will need to continue excelling under the auspices of key senior leaders such as Salopek and tight end Nick Lamirand.
Euclid will confront the Cats with an aggressive defense. The Panthers play a 4-3 base defense that relies on blitzing to pressure the quarterback and attack the ground game.
Reliable man coverage on the outside allows Euclid to succeed with this philosophy. Michael Gravely is a huge reason for Euclid’s success, as the Michigan State commit is a speedster who can shut down the wideout on his side of the field. Cam Smith is another stud in the secondary. Smith picked off an Elyria pass to spark the Panthers’ fourth-quarter run. Look for Euclid to use bump-and-run coverage so they can bring more defenders into the box to stop the run.
Up front, Ahjay Cody is a large reason for Euclid’s success in stopping the run. The veteran linebacker is quick to the ball and an athletic defender. Overall, Euclid’s linebackers are disciplined and savvy defenders who know what they’re doing.
“They have an aggressive defensive philosophy,” says Kyle. “We’ll see some blitzing, so you’ll see the cornerbacks come up and bump and run right at you. It’s carried them in some of their games in going against teams that can throw: They want sacks and to take your wideouts out of the game with 1-on-1 coverage. That’s a challenge.”
SAINT IGNATIUS DEFENSE VS. EUCLID OFFENSE
Just like on offense, injuries have led to significant changes on the depth chart on defense. Plenty of youngsters are seeing playing time earlier than expected.
That’s most evident at linebacker, with Nick Velotta and Aidan Conway both sidelined. Thankfully, the junior linebackers have played quite well. Chris Aerni and Gavin Berger both excelled vs. Solon, combining for 8 tackles and 3 tackles for loss. Aidan Hubbard has helped to bring the two juniors along well, while emerging as one of the team’s top playmakers. Hubbard tops the team with 25 tackles, adding 4.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, an interception, and a fumble recovery. You’d expect nothing less from the Northwestern commit.
With Emmett Hanna sidelined at free safety, Griffin Taliak stepped up in a major way against Solon. Taliak finished as the game’s leading tackler, contributing 6.5 tackles, along with 1 tackle for loss and 1 pass breakup. The junior has outstanding potential to be a playmaking ballhawk for the blue and gold. Fellow junior Braeden Lair and senior Andrew Chime have been outstanding at strong safety, while Chris Snyder and Cole Smith are dynamite cornerbacks.
The defensive line has been stellar as always, too, led by senior Bennett Adler and buoyed by Luca LaSpina, Tommy Wasinski, and Peter Chalhoub.
Euclid’s offense tends to be run-heavy, with backs who can ground and pound you.
Atiba Fitz is a stud for Euclid. The 5’9, 165-pound back models his game after Kareem Hunt, a quick cutter who can pound the rock North-South when need be. The future Air Force student is a back to watch. Also keep an eye on Jayvon Colvin, a change-of-pace back who can slip away from you. Colvin rushed for 136 yards last week, including a 75-yard dash. And the dark horse may be Saivon Jones, who scored twice vs. Elyria this past week, on a 17-yard scamper and a 1-yard dive.
Claishon Ivory and Kentucky commit Armond Scott are the top two targets when Euclid passes. Both are quite excellent wideouts.
Andre Rallings is the leader on offense at quarterback. The 5’10, 160-pound signalcaller is a dual-threat, adept at running and passing. Rallings will run plenty of read options with Fitz and his running backs.
“They’re a very good running football team,” Kyle says. “The running backs are good, the quarterback is very athletic, he can take off and make big plays. The passing game has its success because the other team has to load the box for the run. We’ll see how we handle that.”
Special teams almost always has an impact in playoff games. The Wildcats will take field position seriously and won’t be afraid to trot out Declan Mangan for a punt or field goal. The return units have also played well, as has Sean Cook, who recovered a punt that bounced off a Comet last week. Plays like that will be key on Friday.
"The kicking game is a big plus for us," Coach Kyle avows. "If we can get field position and our kicking game keeps them on their side of the field a lot, that would be really good for us.”