Heart of a champion
JFK squeaks past LaBrae in overtime battle
WARREN — John F. Kennedy’s football team has some remnants from its 2016 Division VII state championship team.
The Eagles looked anything but defending champions early on against a stringent LaBrae team, which has had some epic tussles with JFK. It was no surprise this hard-fought Trumbull County battle came down to an extra session.
Thomas Yanovich had a 15-yard reception in overtime to set up Dominic Scott’s eventual game-winning score in Friday’s 28-21 victory at Mollenkopf Stadium.
“You can never underestimate the heart of a champion,” JFK coach Jeff Bayuk said. “Our kids played like they were champions tonight.”
Yanovich came back on defense and waited for the potent LaBrae offense to take aim at the Eagles once again — this time in overtime.
The Vikings faced third-and-14 from the JFK 24, and LaBrae quarterback Kent Wolford, who picked apart the JFK defense for 292 yards on a 18-of-39 passing, looked to tie the game.
Instead, Yanovich waited for the play to develop, holding back in space.
“Then I noticed this guy sitting here,” he said. “Quarterback was scrambling. Our d-linemen did a great job in wrapping him up. (The LaBrae receiver) wanted to pick it. It was behind him. He tipped it and I grabbed it in.”
It was one of three interceptions the Eagles had against Wolford, the second one for Yanovich.
Kennedy improved to 2-0, while LaBrae dropped to 1-1.
The Eagles thwarted another Vikings drive near the end of regulation. LaBrae drove 59 yards in 11 plays over 2 minutes, 48 seconds to set up Broghan Hyland for a 38-yard field-goal attempt with 8 seconds remaining. The kick was low and blocked by the JFK defensive front to force overtime.
The Vikings went 64 yards in seven plays, aided by a pass interference call with 10:39 remaining, to set up a 21-yard slant from Wolford to Aaron Iler with 9:08 left — giving LaBrae a short-lived 21-14 lead.
After the two teams traded three-and-outs, Kennedy took over at the LaBrae 47 with 4:36 remaining.
Alec Burzynski had a 20-yard punt return, combined with a late hit on LaBrae, as the Eagles started a five-play, 47-yard drive lasting 1:40. Burzynski’s 6-yard reception with 2:56 left and Nunzio Merlo’s extra point tied the game at 21. Quarterback Gregory Valent was 7 of 14 for 86 yards and two scores — about half of it coming on a 45-yard, third-quarter score to Issac Hadley to tie the game at 14.
The JFK defense, which felt the ill effects of Wolford’s passing attack, eventually figured out the LaBrae quarterback. Chris Urcheck stopped a LaBrae drive before halftime and Yanovich had a late third-quarter pick — ending another Vikings drive in Kennedy territory.
This bend-but-don’t-break defense by JFK may take a toll on its veteran coach as the season rolls along. Last year’s state championship team pitched six shutouts and gave up 98 points through 15 games.
“If that’s how we’re going to play, I have to get more blood-pressure medicine,” Bayuk said.
Burzynski, who was instrumental in the Eagles state championship run, had a 43-yard TD run on jet sweep with 30 seconds left in the first quarter. He had four carries for 66 yards.
“Getting back in the game and getting that first score was important,” Bayuk said. “Put the ball in the hands of someone that can win the game.”
LaBrae struck first and often with two long touchdown passes in the first quarter, one from Wolford to Walt Allie and another to Benton Tennant as the Vikings led 14-0 with 3:55 left in the first quarter.
Allie was aware of his surroundings when he caught a deflected pass and went 85 yards for a score, while Wolford found Tennant in stride, and the LaBrae junior took care of the rest — going 49 yards for a touchdown.
Unfortunately in the second quarter, Tennant suffered an injury and was taken away by ambulance.
“I don’t know anything at this point,” LaBrae coach John Armeni said. “It looked like he hurt his elbow somehow. I don’t have any more information than that at this point.”
Allie had four catches for 101 yards, while Tyler Stephens had seven catches for 80 yards. Colton Stoneman was held to 55 yards on 20 rushes — with most of his yards coming in the second half.
Armeni said his team didn’t take advantage of their opportunities to finish off Kennedy.
“We don’t consider staying close with a good team a moral victory,” said Armeni, whose team has its home opener this Friday against Lakeview. “We came here to win. Our kids are disappointed.”
Bayuk gave plenty of credit to LaBrae’s effort.
“They’re always good games, great natural rivalry,” he said. “I hope it continues. They did everything they needed to do to win the game. Sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. I’ve been on both ends of it.”
In the end, Kennedy’s will to win paid off.
Burzynski, who played many positions for Kennedy, was physically exhausted after Friday’s game — sacrificing his body at every turn. He said he didn’t mind because the pain eventually would subside.
“My teammates would do it for me,” he said. “I would do anything for them.
“LaBrae fought hard, but we had the heart in the end.”
The Eagles tangle with Girard’s up-tempo offense Sept. 9 at Mollenkopf Stadium.