On to the final four

Running game carries Eagles to rout of St. Paul in difficult weather conditions

JFK's #7 Evan Boyd dives for extra yardage as St Paul defenders #8 Nick Lukasko, left, #5 Owen Starcher, bottom right, and #14 Colton Service, top right, go for the tackle during 1st Qt. action...by R. Michae Semple

STRONGSVILLE — Wind blew the fall’s first snow across the stadium, leaving snow-covered hash marks on the Strongsville High School football field.

The weather conditions wreaked havoc on players for both John F. Kennedy and Norwalk St. Paul in Saturday’s Division VII, Region 25 final, except one — JFK running back Evan Boyd.

The 6-foot, 185-pound senior scoffed at the conditions as he plowed his way though the St. Paul defensive line. He was one of the main reasons the Eagles snowed under the normally ground-oriented Flyers, 48-13.

Boyd had 40 carries for 222 yards and two rushing touchdowns.

The third-seeded Eagles (12-1) now take on Canal Winchester Harvest Prep (10-3), which beat Waterford in the D-VII, Region 27 final, 29-15. Today, the Ohio High School Athletic Association determines the neutral site for the Division VII state semifinal. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. on Saturday.

JFK's #44 Jacob Coates follows the blocking of teammate #3 Ross Nocera as St. Paul's #5 Owen Starcher goes for the tackle during 1st Qt. action...by R. Michael Semple

This is the first time JFK has advanced to the state semifinals since 2006 when it went to the Division V title game.

“He was really resilient in this weather,” JFK coach Jeff Bayuk said of Boyd. “He did a really good job of carrying the ball. We didn’t have a whole lot of plays we could choose from. We thought about trying to throw the ball.

“These conditions are terrible. It’s a shame a regional final has to be played in weather like this, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The Eagles dominated the line of scrimmage with 60 carries for 296 yards, while St. Paul had a paltry 19 carries for 28 yards against a JFK defense that gave up a total of 14 points in its first seven games.

The JFK running game was so dominant that lineman Dom Morello scored. He picked up a JFK fumble at the 1 and ran it in for a late third-quarter score.

JFK's #7 Evan Boyd makes a reception over the middle of the field and than heads for the end zone as St Paul's defenders #54 Sam Meyers, left, #57 Owen Moffit, center, and #68 Davis Hedrick, right, follow the play during 2nd Qt. action...by R. Michael Semple

St. Paul’s leading rushers Derek Gross and Colton Service were limited to a combined 14 carries for 15 yards. The two combined for more than 3,000 yards heading into Saturday’s game.

“When they saw over 3,000 yards rushing between those two guys, they take that kind of stuff as a challenge,” Bayuk said. “I think that’s the best way to take things when you’re in this position.

“We’re going to keep working hard and hoping we can still hold up defensively against the team we’ll face in the next week.”

After holding St. Paul to a three-and-out to start the game, JFK drove 11 plays, 54 yards in less than 5 minutes as Boyd bowled in a 4-yard touchdown run with 5:16 remaining in the first quarter — a precursor to the dominant running game the Eagles displayed Saturday.

The Kennedy offense didn’t take the field until 1:51 remaining in the first, but that didn’t stop the Eagles from scoring twice on defensive plays. It was two of three defensive scores for Kennedy.

JFK's #7 Evan Boyd, center, fights for yardage as St Paul's #54 Luke Nickoli, right, and #26 Derek Gross, left, go for the tackle during 1st Qt. action...by R. Michael Semple

“That’s just unbelievable,” Bayuk said. “Tip of the cap to our defensive staff and our kids. They played so hard. It wasn’t easy for either offense out there tonight, but they really went above and beyond the call of duty tonight.”

St. Paul took possession after the Boyd 4-yard score. But on second-and-11 from the Flyers 21, St. Paul’s Nick Lukasko, who was 4-of-9 for 36 yards with two interceptions, saw the snap sail over his head and land around the 10 where JFK’s Ross Nocera scooped it and scored with 4:22 remaining.

On second-and-21 from the Kennedy 46 with 3:44 left in the first quarter, JFK’s Issac Hadley tipped the Lukasko pass in the air where Boyd grabbed the ball and went downfield for a 45-yard interception return for a score. On the play, Nocera leveled a St. Paul player with a hard block, clearing Boyd’s path.

“I was set on a blitz and I see the quarterback back-stepping a lot,” Boyd said. “I was like, ‘It must be a screen.’ I turn around and see the guy running across the field. Hadley, our defensive end, made a nice little tip for me. I hurried up, scooped it up and was running.

“I see (Nocera) coming on the way. I’m like, ‘He’s going to get me a good block so I could take this all the way.’ And, he did. It was a great night.”

When the JFK offense took the field, it took less than 5 minutes and 11 plays in 74 yards as Boyd, who had a 37-yard run on the drive, punched it in from a yard out for a 29-0 lead with 9:34 before halftime.

St. Paul countered by capitalizing on two JFK fumbles resulting in a Paul Pearce 15-yard reception from Lukasko and Gross scooping a 25-yard Eagles’ miscue for the other score. It cut the JFK lead to 29-13, but the Flyers (12-1) got no closer.

Nocera’s 60-yard interception return with 1:01 before intermission put the cap on a dominant JFK half, 36-13.

JFK senior receiver Jacob Coates, who broke his collarbone in Week 2 at LaBrae and returned Week 10 against St. Thomas Aquinas, had his first touchdown since his return. The Eagles’ speedster had a 45-yard punt return touchdown with 4:22 remaining.

“He came off the field and said. ‘It’s about time,'” Bayuk said. “He’s been trying to return one since he came back Week 10.”

After the Eagles received the regional plaque, Boyd was making a snow angel and his teammates began belly sliding across the turf.

It’s something JFK couldn’t celebrate last season after losing a regional final to Mogadore.

“This is a very nice moment in Week 13 to win since we couldn’t finish that last year,” Boyd said.