I've been to a few big high school football games over the years but I had never been to "The Holy War."
That's the moniker for the prodigious gridiron battle between the Cleveland area's two biggest parochial schools, St. Ignatius and St. Edward. The series dates back to 1950 and prior to last Saturday's renewal, the Wildcats led the series 21-18-1.
The game had all the hype you could want going in, and then some. It was nearly a must-win situation for St. Edward, whose routine appeal of their four forfeited victories was denied by the OHSAA on Friday.
"We blocked out what that was, that's beyond our control. Our job right now is to try to win football games and get to the playoffs," said St. Ignatius coach Chuck Kyle after the game about his team's approach to the match up knowing St. Ed's almost desperate plight. "This is a big, important game. It's a rivalry game for the kids up there (pointing to the stands) and for all the kids. This one's for them too. I don't think there's any reason why you think there won't be any motivation for the Ed's-Ignatius game."
After an auspicious start by St. Edward, it looked as if the game would indeed follow the course many were expecting it to take. The bruising and powerful St. Edward Eagles were perceived by many as the heavy favorites against the finesse and youth of the St. Ignatius Wildcats.
Royce Adams returned the opening kickoff to the Eagles' own 42-yard line and St. Edward was immediately in business. They marched right down the field and on the 13th play of the drive, Paxton Rose pounded the ball into the end zone on a fourth-and-goal situation from the 2. Ed's led 7-0 with just over seven minutes showing on the clock in the first quarter.
Who would have guessed at that point, even under the inclement weather that both teams faced in the first half, that that would be the extent of the offense the Eagles could muster, for the most part, in the game.
St. Ignatius' first drive of the game resulted in a punt that effectively pinned the Eagles deep in their own territory after Adams had trouble fielding it.
The momentum began to turn in favor of the Wildcats after a solid defensive series forced St. Edward to punt from the shadow of their goal post, giving St. Ignatius their second crack at it on offense from the Eagles' 44 yard line.
Eight plays later, on the first play of the second quarter, quarterback Rudy Kirbus crashed into the end zone from one yard out to tie the game at 7. That was the score at halftime in front of 13,000 very frigid football fans at Parma's Byers Field.
But after the intermission, the game belonged to St. Ignatius. The Wildcats had success both on the ground and in the air in the second half. Adam Danko's 48-yard field goal, a school record, capped a long drive for St. Ignatius and then they followed that up on their ensuing possession with a 32-yard touchdown pass from Kirbus to Chris Rigo.
Adam Danko kicked a school-record 48-yard field goal
In the fourth quarter, Andy Stankus raced in from 18 yards out to put the final points on the board for the Wildcats. Stankus rushed for 222 yards in the game.
St. Edward managed a fourth-quarter field goal by Joe Kleinsmith from 47 yards out to complete the scoring for the Eagles. Kleinsmith missed wide on two stiff wind-aided 50-plus yard field goals in the first half.
The weather may have wrecked havoc some during the first half, but the adverse conditions subsided greatly in the second half when St. Ignatius did most of their damage.
"It was absolutely wild out here on the field trying to handle the conditions. I just give tremendous credit to our kids," Kyle said. "We're kind of a passing team, but we ran the ball well, hit some key passes and the defense did a great job."
It was the Wildcats' offensive line who dominated the line of scrimmage, particularly in the second half.
"They're a very good football team and their line is good too," Kyle said. "It was just a battle. It was a battle because the elements were throwing everybody off and you just had to find a way. We hit a long field goal, they hit one. The punts were rough to field and it was just really tough for both teams, and you just had to find a way."
Stankus gave St. Ignatius a presence on the ground for most of the game but he really came on strong late in contest.
Andy Stankus runs for an 18-yard TD
"The last part of that game was tremendous," Kyle said. "We just went to a normal pro formation and we figured, ‘Okay lets see if he can stretch it and find a seam.' And that was just amazing what he did."
And Kirbus looked as if he may have grown up some since the St. Francis game. The 6-3, 205-pound junior signal caller was 8 of 12 for 140 yards. Going into the game, Kirbus had passed for 1,157 yards with 12 TDs and just four INTs.
"It was a little tough out here. This is not the ideal weather for throwing the football around," Kyle said. "It was a little tough at first but he adjusted very well and he gave us some key passes. That long one to Rigo, that was rough because the wind was blowing that way and that's not an easy thing to do."
Beating a determined St. Ed's team certainly wasn't exactly an easy thing to. The Eagles were virtually in a 10-game playoff stretch ever since the ineligible player infraction came to light. The margin of error was instantly eliminated in regard to the Eagles making it back to the big school state final game this year.
At 3-5 now, the Eagles playoff chances remain alive but they're on life support.
"I don't get into that," said St. Edward coach John Gibbons. "I thought we prepared to play a game every week and up until tonight we did pretty good. Give Ignatius credit."
St. Ignatius outplayed St. Edward on both sides of the ball in the second half and earned the victory.
"We've been playing hard all year and we're proud of our team," Gibbons said. "We have a great team and obviously Ignatius has an outstanding team and it didn't happen tonight. But we've got to come back and keep playing like we have all year. That's all there is.
"It's tough. It's a bitter loss. We prepared hard and we're disappointed but we've got to pick ourselves up and go."
The win clinched a playoff spot for the 7-1 Wildcats but the hard work in the regular season isn't over.
"We got to play Xavier next week. We're in, but we got to play a tough one down there," Kyle said. "Going down to Cincinnati is a little rough."
And the expectations for the Eagles certainly haven't changed with the loss. Gibbons expects his team will respond well against Cincinnati Moeller and Cleveland Bendectine to close out the campaign.
"Like they always do, they'll play hard," Gibbons said. "There's no if's, and's or but's about that."
After all, there's still a lot of computer points on the table for St. Ed's to capture.
Amen to that!
St. Ed's QB Anthony Gardner
St. Ignatius offense
Rudy Kirbus runs for yardage
St. Edward offense
Gardner on a QB sneak behind Alex Boone
Jim Ramella (12) is headed to Boston College
Robby Parris (11) against Royce Adams. Parris had 4 catches for 54 yards.
Patrick Hyland (42) tackles Andy Stankus
OG Joe Thomas (6-5, 280, jr.) is a top prospect for next year
Coaches John Gibbons and Chuck Kyle meet after the game