Kirtland's Rocco Alfieri learned how to be a champion at a young age

Nov. 21—Rocco Alfieri has always been good at football.

The senior at Kirtland learned how to be a champion within the walls of his own home.

Growing up as the younger brother to Mike Alfieri, Rocco always played "up," meaning he would join his brother and his friends when they played backyard football.

And when it came to working out — well — that's when the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder really got a lesson in athletic greatness.

"We played a lot in the backyard," Alfieri said. "When COVID hit (in 2020), we set up a place to lift in our garage. Guys like Jack Bailey and Luke Gardner would come over and lift when we couldn't go to school to do it. I looked up to those guys a lot. It showed me what they did to get where they are, seeing they way they were grinding like that."

As Thanksgiving approaches, Alfieri — now a senior — sees his high school career winding down. It's safe to say he has made the most of it this year and every year before.

Heading into Kirtland's Nov. 24 state semifinal against Sugarcreek Garaway, Alfieri has run for 954 yards — second only to Willie Beers — and has scored 24 touchdowns for a team-best 150 points when you add in his three two-point conversions.

If it's possible, he's been even better on defense, where he has racked up 102 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, five sacks, six pass breakups, three interceptions, three caused fumbles and a handful of quarterback hurries from his linebacker position.

Oh, and if that's not enough, Alfieri also has a 36.8-yard punting average.

Alfieri was a first-team All-Ohio selection at running back last year as a junior. As the Northeast Lakes District defensive player of the year this season, Alfieri is in line to earn high honors among the state's Division VI ranks on the other side of the ball.

"He doesn't come off the field much," Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde said. "He's a very important piece of this thing we've got going on here. He's a talented kid, a hard worker and doesn't care who gets the ball. A very unselfish kid."

LaVerde got a first-hand look at Alfieri's talents years ago in the Kirtland youth league.

"He was always a shifty little running back," LaVerde said. "He's never been a kid to run to the sideline. He plants his foot and gets going north and south. He runs the same way now."

Which usually means he's plowing over defenders who are standing in his way and/or dragging a handful of them into the end zone with him. High school statisticians don't often keep track of the statistics "yards after first contact," but Alfieri's would be off the charts. Few, if any, players break more tackles or drag more defenders than Rocco Alfieri.

"I've never run to the sideline," Alfieri said. "I just want to feel that contact. It's football. It's physical. I take pride in (my style of running). When I get the ball, I want to cut and get going north and south."

He credits his offensive line, anchored by returning All-Ohioan Matthew Kahley, for giving him room to work his magic when he gets the ball in his hands.

Interestingly enough, as prolific as he is in offense — he ran for nearly 1,400 yards as a junior — Alfieri is stuck for an answer when asked which he likes to play more, offense or defense. Similarly to when he's running the ball and inviting contact, Alfieri loves to dish out the hits.

Both his offensive and defensive numbers would be much higher if he and the other starters were on the field longer. But running clock situations — Kirtland has had 12 of them in 14 games it's played this season — have sent Alfieri and the starters to the sideline early on most Friday nights.

"I like them both, offense and defense," Alfieri said. "I really don't have a preference. I like scoring, but I like hitting people on defense, too, so it's a tossup."

When the season is over, Alfieri said so are his playing days. He plans on going into the family business of construction and rental properties. Along with his high school diploma, Alfieri will take with him multiple All-Ohio honors and — hopefully — a second state championship ring to go with the one he and the Hornets won when he was a freshman in 2020.

He still wrinkles his nose at the two state runner-up finishes he and his teammates settled for the past two years.

With the state semifinal round this weekend and the state championship round next weekend, Alfieri opted to hold off on what his best high school football memory would be.

"Ask me that question in a couple weeks," he said.

Kirtland vs. Sugarcreek Garaway

What: Division VI state semifinal

When: 7 p.m., Nov. 24

Where: Louisville Leopard Stadium, 701 South St., Louisville

Records: Kirtland 13-1, Sugarcreek Garaway 14-0

On deck: Winner advances to the state championshp game at 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 1 against Columbus Grove (12-2) or Versailles (12-2).