OHIO CITY, Oh - After a historic night from Wasmer Field, the Wildcats turn their attention to the OHSAA Playoffs. Saint Ignatius ended the regular season with a 6-3 record, winning their final two games against St. Xavier and Football North-Clarkson (ONT). With their wins, the Cats clinched a first-round playoff game with the fifth seed and will host the John Marshall Lawyers from Byers Field.
It has been 44 years since these two programs met on the football field. From 1934 to 1978, Saint Ignatius and John Marshall met on the gridiron each season. In 48 meetings, the Wildcats own a 39-8-1 record. This will be their first-ever playoff appearance in program history for the Lawyers.
“When we came together on Monday as a team, I asked our guys, ‘What’s our record?’ and everyone answered saying 0-0,” says Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle ‘69. “That is the truth; this is the beginning of a new season. Your goal is to go undefeated in the playoffs and I think our schedule has prepared us for this challenge.”
The Wildcats have a favorable record in their first game of the playoffs, with a 25-6 record in the program’s history. Overall, the Cats are 76-20 in the postseason.
The send-off for coach Kyle at Wasmer Field in his final regular season game was unforgettable, but the Wildcats still have one more goal in mind: to send coach Kyle out with one last State Championship.
SAINT IGNATIUS OFFENSE VS. JOHN MARSHALL DEFENSE
The Wildcats hope to use their challenging regular season schedule to their advantage in the postseason. The only losses of the season for the Cats came against number-one ranked teams in Archbishop Hoban, St. Edward and Archbishop Moeller. Despite those losses, the Wildcats hope to build off that into the playoffs and the offense will be critical.
“This is where you step it up a notch and I have seen that in practices this week,” Kyle explains. “I am eager to see how we handle Friday night with John Marshall. This is a well-coached team.”
The offense for the Wildcats responded well last week against Football North after not possessing the football until the 11:45 mark of the second quarter. The Chargers managed to orchestrate an opening drive that killed the opening 12 minutes and would cap it off with a score.
Junior quarterback Joshua Papesh’s connection with receiver Jonathan Merimee has developed nicely over the past two weeks of the season. Both are peaking at the perfect time, with playoffs kicking off this week in Ohio. Merimee finished the regular season with 28 receptions for 372 yards and five touchdowns. If that connection continues for Papesh, this offense can compete with any opponent in Division I.
A banged-up position group heading into the playoffs will be the running back core. The Wildcats are awaiting the return of senior Steven Favazzo and Grant Washington has been sidelined. Juniors Sean Martin and Max Ritt have stepped up for the Cats in that position group.
“Max showed us early that he has great speed and can make people miss,” explains Kyle. “He was ready if this situation came up. It hurt to lose Charlie Dunstan, but Max has proven himself.”
As John Marshall heads into their first playoff appearance in program history, they will look for a spark from senior Thiotis Greene. Greene will look to match up against the Wildcats’ top targets in, Merimee and Ryan Kennedy. Greene has a pick-six on the season that came against Beachwood.
SAINT IGNATIUS DEFENSE VS. JOHN MARSHALL OFFENSE
The stamina of the Saint Ignatius defense was on full display against Football North on Friday. It does not happen often, but Football North controlled the football for the 12-minute opening quarter. It was only fitting that it came down to the defense once again to secure a victory in Ohio City.“That was an excellent football team. In many ways, physically, they were bigger than we were and showed up right away,” Kyle says. “We made our adjustments and got the momentum back. That game showed what the motto of the playoffs will be: to find ways to win.”
Senior John Leszcz has blossomed in his safety role for the Wildcats this season. Leszcz had one of his best games of the season, leading the defense in tackles with 10.5. He also made a crucial play in the closing seconds of the second quarter to thwart a potential Football North Touchdown. Brandon Webster forced Mekhi Tyrell Jr. to come inside on a post route and Leszcz stepped in to intercept an Adrian Mohammed pass.
Another player who stepped up on defense last week was junior outside linebacker Ryan Ardire. Ardire and Patrick Cooney are a pair of linebackers that have continued to work throughout the season to earn time in the rotation and bolster the front seven.
John Marshall will be led by quarterback Jermaine Stennies. The senior quarterback has a cannon of an arm that can hurt opposing team defenses. Stennies showed off his dead-eye skills against Beachwood, where he would pass for 230 yards on 9-of-17 passing and three touchdowns.
What can hurt Stennies against the Wildcats is forcing his passes. Interceptions have plagued Stennies this season and the Cats will look to rally their defense to rack up turnovers against John Marshall on Friday night. In a rivalry game against John Hay, Stennies threw three interceptions.
The Lawyers have a talented freshman running back in Jaylan Salmon. The freshman had his first 100-yard rushing game against Beachwood where he would tote the rock 14 times for 105 yards and find paydirt once. Salmon had a career day against John Hay as he rushed for three touchdowns in the 21-18 loss.
“They are an athletic team and can hurt you,” says Kyle. “We have played athletic teams all season long and are ready for this challenge. They have guys that play both sides of the ball and that can be a challenge to game plan against.”
For this playoff run, Saint Ignatius will go as far as their defense will take them and on Friday, it’ll be critical that the defense gets the John Marshall offense off the field quickly.
Special Teams was the third facet of the game that decided the outcome against Football North. Cody Haddad’s 66-yard kick-off return put Thomas Kilbane into range to make a 26-yard field goal, which would be the game-winning kick in the third quarter.
To end the night, Brandon Webster used his speed off the edge to block Football North’s 52-yard attempt. If the field goal had been successful, it would have knotted the game at 10 with under a minute to go in regulation. Instead, the blocked kick fell in the hands of Ben Taliak and the Wildcats went into victory formation.
Cody Haddad and Max Ritt have turned out to be exceptional returners for the Wildcats and will look to set up the offense with excellent field position.
The first round of the OHSAA Division I Playoffs are here and the winner on Friday will take on the winner of Cleveland Heights and Lorain in the Regional Quarterfinal. Kick-off is at 7 p.m. from Byers Field in Parma.