Rain drizzled at FirstEnergy Stadium on Friday evening, but nothing could dampen the pure joy of the Saint Ignatius Wildcats.
The Wildcats fought hard for a 21-7 victory over St. Edward on Friday, enjoying the unforgettable experience of playing at the home of the Cleveland Browns.
A ferocious defense and an opportunistic offense made the experience a success for the Wildcats on Friday. Two forced turnovers by the Wildcats turned the tides and three gritty rushing touchdowns ensured the triumph in a battle that the 14,000 in attendance will remember for a long time.
The Wildcats now own a 32-24-1 advantage in the all-time series, including a 26-12-1 margin with Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle' 69 at the helm.
The first five minutes of the game were quite eventful. Dominic DeVengencie took the kickoff 68 yards to the St. Edward 20-yard line, cause the Wildcats’ sidelines to burst forth with energy. The team’s longest kickoff return of the season started off the game with a bang.
The Eagles flip-flopped the momentum just three plays later. Charles Kirkhol picked off a pass for St. Edward in the middle of the field on a third down play, and charged 60 yards to flip the field. Jahadge “Bo” Floyd saved the touchdown with a hustle play on a tackle from behind.
Two plays later, Garrett Dzuro found a running lane and exploited it. The St. Edward quarterback dashed 24 yards into the end zone to place the Eagles in the lead. Gianluca Russo kicked the extra point to set the score at 7-0.
“The first 5-10 minutes were crazy. We get the big kick return, then the cornerback breaks one,” said Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle ’69. “I thought, ‘This game could get crazy here.’ Then it settled into a battle, and every inch counted.”
The Wildcats’ offense marched down the field a bit on the following drive before being forced to punt. Patrick Otter pinned the Eagles at their own 1-yard line on a nice punt with 5:41 left in the first quarter.
Jordan Castleberry gave the Eagles breathing room with a 16-yard run, but the Wildcats halted St. Edward near midfield. Following a Wildcat three-and-out, St. Edward took over at its own 23-yard line, running two plays for three yards before the end of the quarter.
The script of the second quarter was filled with punts. The Eagles punted three times and the Wildcats punted twice, as rain dripped onto fans and players, slowing down the game.
As they have done so many times in the second quarter this season, the Saint Ignatius offense went to work. On a critical 3rd and 8 from midfield, Patrick Delahunty found Connor Cmiel across the middle for 35 yards and a huge conversion. The play gave the Wildcats the push they needed, as Jack Welcsh flew 16 yards right down Broadway for a touchdown on the next play. Tony Georges provided the key seal block to open the running lane for Welcsh on his fifth rushing touchdown of the year.
With 3:32 remaining, the Eagles’ offense looked for a response. Over the course of 11 plays, the Eagles marched 77 yards down to the Saint Ignatius 5-yard line. With 20 seconds remaining, the Eagles faced a crucial 4th and 1. St. Edward decided to try for the first down. On a dramatic play, Connor Francz made the tackle to stop the Eagles from earning a new set of downs.
The defensive stop set the score at 7-7 heading into halftime. On the season, the Wildcats have outscored opponents in the second quarter by a whopping margin of 105-35.
Just like the second quarter, the third stanza began with a punt party. The Eagles punted twice and the Wildcats punted once before each team notched a big defensive play.
St. Edward began the festivities, as Caden Kolesar picked off the Wildcats at the Eagles’ 25-yard line on a great play by the senior. But just like last week vs. St. Xavier, the Saint Ignatius defense provided an answer.
On the very next play after the Saint Ignatius turnover, St. Edward tried a deep ball down the Wildcats’ sidelines. The ball tipped into the hands of Danny Scelza, and the senior knew what to do. Scelza galloped 46 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the St. Edward 4-yard line.
Just a couple plays later, the Wildcats turned the pick into points. Floyd followed a hole up the middle for six points from 7 yards out. The score marked Floyd’s sixth rushing score on the season. The extra point was blocked, but the Wildcats held the lead, 13-7, with 2:16 left in the third.
“A lot had to do with the rain. It’s not the easiest way to work. The ball gets slippery, and our job was to take advantage of the turnovers, and we did,” Coach Kyle said. “This game could have been 7-7 until midnight, the way things were going.”
Some fans might have started to sweat after the extra point was blocked. All-time against the Eagles, the Wildcats entered the game with a 29-2 record record when scoring over 14 points and an 0-21 record when scoring fewer than 14 points. But this day belonged to the Wildcats.
The ensuing drive for the Eagles lasted into the fourth quarter. On the second play of the quarter, the Eagles lined up to punt. On a surprise trick play, the Eagles faked the punt. The move proved unsuccessful, as Tommy Eichenberg stepped in to make the critical tackle to deny the trickeration.
On St. Edward’s first play after an Otter punt, the Wildcats’ defense made its second critical play of the night. The Eagles fumbled the ball at their own 16-yard line, forced by Jack Kennedy. Scelza again secured the ball, falling on the ball at the St. Edward 17.
Following an 8-yard Welcsh run, the Wildcats took a timeout. Following the timeout, the Wildcats saw St. Edward line up in its goal line set. The Wildcats audibled at the line, sending Delahunty out wide and keeping Kennedy in as a wildcat. Kennedy followed an open seam, thanks to great blocking, for a 9-yard touchdown. The score was the first rushing touchdown of his career.
“We installed it this week,” Kennedy explained. “It was for the 5-front, or the bear. They usually show it on the goal line. They came out on it, we changed the play at the line into the Wildcat. Welcsh ran through the hole and made a fantastic block. Nate Conry sealed the edge, and it was a walk-in touchdown. The whole play was beautiful.”
Ahead 19-7, the Wildcats decided to be bold. The Wildcats chose to go for a 2-point conversion. On the snap, Delahunty handed off to Jack Welcsh, who pitched it to Cmiel on a reverse. Cmiel got the edge and dashed to the left corner of the end zone for two points, placing the score at 21-7 with 8:44 remaining in the contest. The play marked the team’s firsy two-point conversion since September 4, 2015.
Needing points to stay in the game, the Eagles marched down the field. Dzuro authored a deliberate drive down the field, converting three third downs en route to the Saint Ignatius goal line. On first and one from the Saint Ignatius 1-yard line, the Eagles committed a crucial false start penalty. The 5-yard penalty set back the Eagles to the 6-yard line. Despite having four chances, St. Edward could not punch it in, as the 15-play, 68-yard drive ended with zero points.
The Wildcats’ huge stop on defense seriously affected the hopes of a St. Edward comeback. A time-consuming drive by the Saint Ignatius offense provided the final nail in the coffin, ensuring a win for the Wildcats.
“It was a huge game. Coming into the game, we weren’t focused on the playoffs,” said Kennedy. “We didn’t really care about the seeding. We just wanted to win this game. The venue here at Cleveland Browns Stadium made it that much more special. We started off slow, but we picked it up again. In the second half, we dominated. To have this feeling going into the playoffs is great.”
The rain certainly impacted the contest. The weather limited the teams to a combined 121 yards through the air and the teams combined for three interceptions. At the end of the day, turnovers decided the game.
The Wildcats turned an interception and a fumble recovery into 14 points, the difference in the game on Friday. On the season, the ferocious Saint Ignatius defense has claimed 17 turnovers – 11 interceptions and 6 fumble recoveries. The Saint Ignatius offense has now scored 50 points off of turnovers this season.
“We had a couple breaks. Honestly, either team could have won,” Kyle said. “We took advantage of the breaks, and that’s all I can say. In the running game, you have to be patient, and I thought we were. If didn’t work that time, but almost, then we read it, and there was a seam there. In the red zone, both Jack and Bo had nice runs for touchdowns because they saw a seam and took it. That was awesome.”
The Wildcats will not dwell on the feeling of victory for too long, however. The Football Cats will likely host a playoff game next Friday, against a team to be determined. The work to prepare for the Regional Quarterfinal begins immediately.
“Our kids will enjoy it, it was a very wonderful experience,” Kyle said after the game. “But in about a half-hour, and it’s playoffs, and actually, we could end up playing them again. There’s games to be played tomorrow, so we’ll find out who plays what.”
Despite the 24-hour rule, the Wildcats will cherish this game forever.
Playing at FirstEnergy Stadium, the home of the Browns, is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience for a student-athlete.
“Walking out onto the field for the first time was unbelievable. The stadium is ginormous,” Kennedy said. “The grass is amazing and the atmosphere was unbelievable. It was great.”
Coach Kyle and the Wildcats are thankful to the Browns and FirstEnergy Stadium for being such great hosts.
“As much rain as you saw, the turf was in great shape. It was wet on top, but the footing was okay, kids were making cuts,” Kyle said. “It was a wonderful experience. The atmosphere is super. Wonderful. We really appreciate the Browns. They care about the young kids in football, and gave them a chance to play here, which is awesome.”