Ironton falls in finals on Kirtland’s big plays
For The Ironton Tribune
CANTON — Mason Sullivan was the Hornets’ workhorse, but Kirtland’s Gage Sullivan was a play-making, pass-catching Fighting Tiger killer.
As a result, and swarmed under all evening by Kirtland’s dominant defense that was as good as advertised, Ironton was headed home late Saturday night with a silver Ohio High School Athletic Association trophy — instead of the coveted gold.
Gage Sullivan made three impactful receptions, Mason Sullivan rushed for 101 yards on 25 carries, and the undefeated Hornets held the Fighting Tigers’ usually-strong rushing attack to only 47 yards as Kirtland captured the Division V state championship 17-7 inside Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
For the Fighting Tigers, which went 13-2 with their only other loss at archrival Ashland in overtime (16-10), Saturday’s state runner-up is the storied program’s seventh all-time — as Ironton’s other two state championship tilt appearances produced its two titles in 1979 and 1989.
Their most recent appearance in the state final before Saturday was in 1999 — which of course remains bitter to this day because of the controversial nature of that 16-14 loss against Sandusky Perkins.
Ironton, including this season, was making its 35th all-time OHSAA state playoff appearance — which tied it with Cincinnati Moeller and trails only Newark Catholic (36) by one for the most.
The Fighting Tigers, with a victory on Saturday night, would have won their 50th all-time tournament game.
In the post-game press conference, despite what the scoreboard read, Ironton head coach Trevon Pendleton — the 27-year-old completing his second season in charge — said his Fighting Tigers “are state champs as far as I’m concerned.”
“We fought and we clawed,” said Pendleton. “Just so proud of these guys, and I told them in the locker room that they’ve changed the course of Ironton Fighting Tiger football history. It’s where it needs to be again, and these guys are a testament to that.”
But while Ironton indeed enjoyed its run to the state championship bout, the Hornets and head coach Tiger LaVerde — in front of an announced crowd of 4,881 — only added to their expanding and impressive legacy.
Kirtland claimed its fifth all-time state title, including its second consecutive, and with all five occurring in the past decade.
The Hornets were appearing in their third straight state championship game, their eighth in the last nine years — and extended the state’s longest winning streak to 30 games, going undefeated in the past two seasons.
Kirtland’s last loss was the 2017 Division VI state championship bout to Marion Local, as it won the Division VI title last year — but moved back up to Division V this campaign for the first time since 2011 (state champion) and 2012 (state runner-up).
The Hornets finished as the Associated Press Division V poll champions as well, but validated that wire-to-wire ranking by taming the Fighting Tigers on Saturday night.
Kirtland was allowing just six points per game entering the state final — and it took a 77-yard touchdown pass from second-team all-Ohio quarterback Gage Salyers to fellow senior Jordan Grizzle with a minute remaining in the third quarter to finally get on the board.
But the fast and aggressive Hornets held Ironton down in its desired run game, as the dual-threat Salyers was under pressure all night — and had just six yards on a dozen carries.
Reid Carrico, who had rushed for 1,545 yards entering the state final following his 18-carry, 234-yard eruption in the state semifinal, could only muster 40 yards on 12 tries.
LaVerde said that although Ironton’s “impressive” size was a concern, his Hornets simply relied on their speed and swarming to the football.
Prior to the Fighting Tiger touchdown, the Hornets had forced Ironton to punt on its opening two possessions, an Avery Book missed field goal, two turnovers on downs — and a massive goal-line stop on the first half’s final play that was ultimately the most important snap.
“They’re (Fighting Tigers) a big, physical team,” said LaVerde. “Their size is impressive, and (Carrico’s) a big dude, and their fullbacks, (Seth Fosson) and (Junior Jones), are big dudes. They want to line up and run the ball right at you. I was worried about that, but I’ve been worried about it all year, and these guys rose to the challenge. They just do what they’re coached to do; they use leverage and strength and quickness.”
Ironton rushed for 48 yards on 28 carries, as Salyers — forced to throw after Ironton got behind 17-0 midway through the third quarter — completed 7-of-18 passes for 205 yards.
Of course, 77 of those went to Grizzle on the one score — simply known now as “Vermont Switch”.
Salyers went deep downfield to Grizzle, who made the catch of the perfect dime drop in stride along the right hashmarks and raced to the end zone.
They were playing Cover-3 all game,” said Salyers. “The receivers switch, look off the safety, and he bit on the left side, and then I threw a pass to Grizzle. It was a good play call, good catch, good throw. Just executed the play well.”
Book kicked the extra point to make it 17-7, but the Tigers needed the ball back — and in a hurry.
Kirtland, a usually run-heavy team, kept the ball for eight plays and the next five minutes and 22 seconds — before the Hornets’ Mike Alfieri punted to Ironton at its own 8-yard-line with 7:34 to play.
After an incomplete pass and a Salyers short run to the 10, he completed a pass to Carrico for 32 yards — but the drive stalled out after four more incompletions.
“Your emphasis is always trying to execute better,” said Pendleton. “Problem was, we just ran out of time and had to start doing things a little different than we would like to, if we had been able to stay balanced a little bit.”
The Hornets held the football for the final six minutes and 10 seconds, forcing the Fighting Tigers to take all of their remaining timeouts — as the game ended with four victory-formation kneel-downs by Kirtland quarterback Liam Powers.
Speaking of executing better, the Fighting Tigers would love to have the final 40 seconds of the opening half back.
Trailing 10-0 and with 52 seconds showing, Ironton got its biggest gainer of the first half — when Salyers went deep to Grizzle for 60 yards down to the Hornet 2-yard-line.
Out of timeouts after that, Carrico carried a yard, but then the Hornets were whistled for being offside.
Still, Ironton was out of timeouts — and Salyers’ sneak from the 1, or actually closer to the six-inch line, on the final play was ruled down right smack at the goal line and did NOT break the plane.
Kirtland ran off the field for the halftime in definite celebration, but the officials decided to review the play using the video replay system, which was implemented by the OHSAA this year for the state finals.
After about a five-minute review, the call was upheld — and Salyers’ sneak was ruled short of the plane.
In the press conference, Pendleton preferred Salyers not answer a reporter’s question about the play and it’s enormous impact — simply stating instead that “they (Hornets) made a great play right there and Salyers was fighting tooth and nail (to score).”
LaVerde discussed it, however, as senior defensive end Mike Rus was the one who made the initial tackle on Salyers.
“We sold out right there,” he said. “There was 13 seconds left, so if they would’ve run a power pass, we’d have had nobody guarding the tight end. They chose to just run it, we got penetration. This little guy (Rus) is a defensive tackle. He is 5-9, 165-pounds. I don’t know how he got in there.”
Had Ironton got in the end zone there — and had Book made his 44-yard field-goal attempt with 5:09 to play in the second quarter — it could have been, would have been, even should have been tied 10-10 at halftime.
Instead, the Hornets seized upon that momentum — and scored their second touchdown after receiving the second-half kickoff.
Following the return of 22 yards to their own 39, they drove nine plays in four-and-a-half minutes and picked up four first downs — scoring on an 18-yard pass from Liam Powers to Gage Sullivan to make it 17-0 with Mario Rodin’s extra-point kick.
On the touchdown toss, Powers put it up to where only the six-foot, four-inch sophomore Sullivan could catch it — in the front corner of the end zone and up and over two Fighting Tiger defenders.
“We said if we can get it (the margin) to 17, that’s three scores and that’s big,” said LaVerde. “We got it to 17-0, and then we’re just trying to run out the clock the rest of the game.”
It was the last in a series of great plays by Sullivan, who actually took a toss sweep on the opening play of that series for 19 yards into Ironton territory.
The Hornets also executed a double-reverse pass on 4th-and-6 to keep the series alive — as Joey Grazia threw back to Powers for 7 yards.
Sullivan started his eye-popping big game on the very first Hornet play — after Ironton went three-and-out.
From his own 26, Powers put one up for Sullivan against Ironton’s one-on-one coverage — as Sullivan secured it incredibly with one hand and made the catch for 47 yards.
On the next play, from the Fighting Tiger 27, Mason Sullivan scampered straight up the middle for the touchdown run — right at the 10:19 mark and just 16 seconds after Kirtland took possession.
Rodin’s extra-point kick quickly made it 7-0, as Pendleton’s preview interview discussed plays in the passing game as a possible “X” factor.
“Yes, we talked about that. But credit Kirtland for making those plays. They have good athletes and it comes down to making plays. They made that one, they made more plays than we did,” he said. “You have two very good football teams playing at a high level. They capitalized on their opportunities.”
The game indeed was an anticipated defensive slugfest and low-scoring affair, as Ironton held the football for the next four minutes and 12 seconds, but it punted after nine plays and near midfield — with Rus sacking Salyers for a 6-yard loss to the Fighting Tigers’ 42 to stall the drive out.
Kirtland then maintained possession for 14 plays and the final six minutes of the opening quarter — and the opening minute and 36 seconds of the second.
The Hornets, following a Cameron Deere sack of Powers for an eight-yard loss back to the Kirtland 8-yard-line, then faced 3rd-and-19 — but leave it to Gage Sullivan to go up and high point the Powers pass near the sideline and make the reception for 20 yards and a first down.
The Hornets had four of their 14 first downs on the series, as Powers later completed a 29-yard pass to Anthony DeMarco — moving the ball to the Ironton 11.
Rodin registered the first points in 12 minutes, successfully kicking a 21-yard field goal only a minute-and-a-half into the second stanza to make it 10-0.
The Fighting Tigers tried to answer, and actually drove eight plays in five minutes and eight seconds from their own 30 to the red zone, but another sack on Salyers resulted in a 12-yard loss — thus impacting Book on his field-goal try that missed short and originally appeared to be tipped.
Ironton had three possessions of at least four minutes and eight plays, including in the third quarter trailing 17-0, but none produced points.
That was despite the Fighting Tigers slightly outgaining the Hornets (252-246), as Kirtland combined 125 rushing yards with 121 passing.
Powers was 4-of-5 passing, three of which went to Gage Sullivan for 85 yards — and each made a major impact.
Indeed, while Mason Sullivan was the Hornets’ workhorse, it was Gage Sullivan — and a dominant defense — that was the Fighting Tigers’ killer.
Saturday night’s affair marked the final game for the Ironton seniors, which didn’t qualify for the playoffs as sophomores — and went just 6-5 with a regional quarterfinal loss at Division V state runner-up Johnstown-Monroe last year.
While the Fighting Tigers’ “Mission 15” for 2019 didn’t produce a desired state championship, Pendleton said order was restored in Ironton football this season.
“These seniors, all of them, are the ones that are responsible for us getting here. I can’t say enough about them and about this team,” he said. “This isn’t the outcome we wanted tonight, and you never want to send a good group off or see it end, but that doesn’t take away what this team did this year.”