High school football: Perry, Kirtland hang hats on defense as playoff runs continue

Nov. 1—If what they say is true — that defense wins championships — then the Perry and Kirtland football teams must like their chances.

When the regular season ended, two area teams were ranked as the No. 1 team in Ohio in their respective divisions — Perry in Division V and Kirtland in Division VI. Both teams flew through the regular season with high-scoring offenses, Kirtland doing most of its damage on the ground and Perry led by 1,700-yard passer Walter Moses.

But a deeper look reveals that while Perry and Kirtland hang a ton of points on the board, the Pirates scoring 38.9 points per game and the Hornets averaging 41.3, the teams hang their hats on defense.

Heading into this weekend's regional quarterfinals — Perry hosts Sandy Valley while Kirtland hosts Canton Central Catholic — Perry has given up a total of 1,443 yards of offense through 11 games (a minuscule 131-yard average), while Kirtland has surrendered only 1,636 yards (148 per game).

The word "stingy" doesn't come close to describing the Perry and Kirtland defenses, with Perry giving up 5.8 points per game and Kirtland 6.5.

"There are a million ways to play football," Perry coach Bob Gecewich said. "When we first came here, we made the commitment to defense. Coach (Scott) Niedzwiecki — our defensive coordinator, and Coach (Jeff) Perry, Coach (Mike) Crissinger and Coach (Ray) Enricco are very good at what they do."

Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde feels the same way about his staff, led by defensive coordinator Ryan Beeler, and the defensive unit.

"They worked really hard in the offseason and this season," LaVerde said. "Everybody does their job and is unselfish. We just try to keep the ball in front of us. It's a good group that can tackle. They're playing at a very high level right now."

Kirtland enters this week's regional quarterfinal against Sandy Valley on an eight-game winning streak. The Hornets have given up only 26 points over that eight-game run. The first-string defense has given up only six of those points, coming on a last-second Hail Mary pass to end the first half against Harvey in Week 8.

The last time a team scored more than 14 points against Kirtland was back on Sept. 1 when Gecewich's Pirates handed the Hornets a 24-6 loss to give Kirtland its first regular-season loss since 2016.

"Yeah, we didn't play very well that game," said senior Rocco Alfieri, the team's leading tackler with 82 stops this year. "That put a lot in our minds to improve and make us step up more. We needed to be better."

Meanwhile, Perry didn't just give Kirtland a loss, the Pirates have hammered everyone in sight. Perry has had a running clock situation against every team is has played this year except for Kirtland.

"We do take offense (when someone scores on us)," junior linebacker Owen McKoon, the Pirates' leading tackler with 82, said. "It hasn't happened a lot, but if it does, we play 100 time harder the next play. Our goal is zero points."

Since both Kirtland and Perry are in smaller divisions, that means both teams have a lot of guys playing both offense and defense.

For instance, and this is just a smattering:

—Perry's leading rusher (Jayden Studio with 772 yards and 12 TDs) also has 44 tackles and six tackles for loss at linebacker.

—Kirtland's returning All-Ohio running back (Rocco Alfieri with 720 yards and 15 TDs) leads the team with 82 tackles, 17 TFLs, three sacks and two interceptions).

—Perry's Brayden Richards not only has more than 1,000 yards offense in rushing, receiving and return yards, but also 45 tackles and is lauded by one area coach as "the best cover man I've ever seen."

—Kirtland's Gino Blasini is his team's leading receiver with 403 yards and seven touchdowns, but also has four interceptions, 12 pass breakups and leads the team in punt and kick returns.

Very few players on both teams only play one side of the ball.

"We don't do extra running in practice to condition," Gecewich said. "Our dudes are either taking reps on defense or are on scout offense. We get over 100 snaps per practice and every play is 10-to-40 yards and they flip around on both sides of the ball. It's not like our guys can go sit down for a while. They're always out there."

Another thing the teams have in common is that neither of them is loaded with big guys on defense. Fast and physical, yes. But not big.

Macguire Boyd (6-foot, 210) is the only starter on Kirtland's defense who tops 200 pounds. That being said, defensive linemen Aaron Fortuna and Will Bates — both at 5-10, 190 — pack a punch in the trenches. Bates has 18 TFLs and nine sacks, while Fortuna has 13 TFLs and three sacks along with a slew of quarterback hurries.

"Those two guys ..." LaVerde marveled. "They're a big reason why the rest of the guys on defense can do their jobs. They're very quick and they are going against bigger linemen week in and week out. They do an incredible job doing what we ask them to do."

At Perry, 5-5, 160-pound Drew Smith anchors the defensive line with 34 tackles, five TFLs and three sacks. His action — along with other linemen who rotate in — allow guys like McKoon, Dom LaMacchia (55 tackles, 8 TFLs) and others to operate on the back end.

"We're not big," McKoon said. "What makes us successful is we're physical and we run to the ball. We study really hard and watch film a lot to find a team's tendencies and then we attack them."

Both Kirtland and Perry face tougher challenges as the playoff weeks progress. Kirtland, which led 42-0 last week at the half, faces a Canton Central Catholic team whose four losses are to Division II Massillon Perry, 10-1 Norwayne, 9-2 Lake Catholic and Division I Massillon Jackson.

"As with every game, we want to shut down the run first and make them throw the ball," Alfieri said. "Whatever a team brings us, we'll be ready. Our coaches prepare us."

While Perry gave up only 116 total yards (only two through the air) in last week's 56-0 win over Crestwood, the Pirates face a 7-4 Sandy Valley team this week that has a dynamic dual-threat quarterback in Nick Petro.

"Be prepared," Gecewich said of what he wants his team — and defense — to be. "It's not what our DEFENSE has to be, it's what our TEAM has to be. At the end of the day, did you play as hard as you can for as long as you can to the best of your ability? That's what we want to be."