Published: Sunday, November 26, 2006
It's clear, JFK on its way to state
Big plays, long drives and defense were keys in the Eagles' 34-6 win over
By JOE SCALZO
ASHLAND Before the season started, a reporter asked Warren JFK High football coach Tony Napolet about the formula for winning a state title.
"I had it 15 years ago," he said at the time. "I lost it."
At the time, Napolet was trying to find a replacement for All-Ohio running back Anthony Elzy and wasn't sure how good his team was going to be. He knew he had some skilled wideouts and he knew he had a good quarterback in senior J.J. Townsend.
He also knew he had a lot of question marks. When asked on Saturday if he thought this team would advance to the state championship game, Napolet smiled and said, "Never in a million years."
On a roll
But a funny thing happened. The Eagles started winning. And never stopped. The biggest came on Saturday as the Eagles dropped Amanda-Clearcreek 34-6 in a Division V state semifinal at Community Stadium.
JFK will meet St. Henry (13-1) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Canton Fawcett Stadium.
"It's a great honor," said Townsend, who completed 7 of 13 passes for 139 yards and three touchdowns. "It's something we've been talking about since my freshman year."
The Eagles have survived a few scares in the postseason, winning the first three games by eight points or fewer. But Saturday's game was never really in doubt. JFK had a 14-0 lead before Clearcreek even gained a first down. The first scoring drive took one play. After a 60-yard punt return from senior Anthony Kokal gave the Eagles terrific field position, junior Eric McBride burst through the right side of the line on an inside draw, scampering 24 yards for the score.
The second scoring drive was a little tougher. Backed up inside its own 1, JFK drove 99 yards in 17 plays, chewing up almost eight minutes on the clock before Townsend hit James Howard for a 10-yard touchdown strike on fourth-and-5.
"I thought that was a backbreaker," said Napolet.
Slip, then score
Minutes later, the Eagles had another terrific scoring opportunity, driving to the Aces' 1 before a fumbled snap gave Clearcreek the ball. No problem. JFK's defense forced a three-and-out, the Eagles drove down and Townsend hit Dan Hall for a 5-yard TD pass to make it 20-0 at halftime. There wasn't much suspense after that as Townsend added a 50-yard TD pass to sophomore Nick Brown and Raphael Patterson returned a fumble 77 yards to close out the JFK scoring.
Patterson's effort capped a wonderful performance by the Eagles' defense, who forced four turnovers and held the Aces to their lowest scoring output of the season.
"Our defense doesn't get a lot of credit," said Napolet, "but it's not too bad."
Brown, filling in for suspended wideout Desmar Jackson, had two receptions for 86 yards and Howard had three for 32. McBride had 14 carries for 54 yards and Townsend added 15 for 48 as the Eagles gained 120 yards on the ground.
Clearcreek junior Dalton Smith, who was under heavy pressure all night, scrambled for 78 yards on 17 carries and completed 16 of 25 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown. The lone score came on an 11-yard pass to Judd Ellinger early in the fourth quarter.
"They were better tonight," said Clearcreek coach Ron Hinton. "Would we like to play another week? Heck yes. Would we have liked a better peformance? Heck yes. But they made the big plays."
For the second straight year, the Mahoning Valley will have two teams in the state final. Mooney, which lost to Coldwater in last season's Division IV championship game, advanced to the final for the third straight year and willl meet Plain City Jonathan Alder. Canfield fell to Toledo Central Catholic in last year's Division II final.
JFK is 1-2 all-time in state championship games, defeating Springfield Catholic 20-7 in 1991 and falling to Wheelersburg (14-7) in 1989 and Cincinnati Cape (17-16) in 1992.
Getting its second title will be a big challenge. St. Henry, which defeated Findlay Liberty Benton in the other semifinal, has won five state championships, the most recent coming in 2004.
"St. Henry is supposed to be the Mooney of Division IV and we respect that," Napolet said.
If you think Napolet was laying early claim to the underdog role, you're right. It's a label he embraces.
"I love being the underdog," he said. "We're just a little team from Trumbull County and we accept that."
Many might snicker at that last statement. With an undefeated record and a 25-14 record in the playoffs (only Mooney is better in the area), the Eagles are plenty good.
And plenty happy about where they are.
"We're in Game 15," said Napolet. "It's looking better every game."