Destiny: JFK faces Redskins

Correspondent photo / David Dermer John F. Kennedy's Jesse Likens, left, fights off Independence's Brian Vollman during the first half of Saturday's game at Independence High School.

WARREN — There is plenty of history between the Cuyahoga Heights and John F. Kennedy football teams — and not just against each other.

Combined, they’ve been to three state finals in two different divisions since 2016. They’ve each reached the regional championship every year but one since 2015 (two came against each other).

If either expect to get there again, they need to win Saturday.

JFK and top-seeded Cuyahoga Heights square off in a Division VII, Region 25 semifinal at 7 p.m. at Ravenna High School.

It’s the third matchup between the two powerhouses in the last three years, and the fifth-seeded Eagles (8-3) and coach Jeff Bayuk aren’t quibbling over an early-round matchup.

Correspondent photo / David Dermer JFK's Jesse Likens, left, celebrates with Christian Marantis after scoring a touchdown during the first half of their OHSAA Playoff game Saturday night at Independence High School.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh, you got a bad draw. You have to play Cuyahoga Heights in the second round,'” Bayuk said. “Well, the whole idea is to win the state championship once you’re in the tournament. So, in order to do that, you have to beat the best teams in your region anyway. So, whether you face them in the second round or the third round doesn’t really matter. In order to be the best, you have beat the best.”

The Redskins (9-1) are the best for a reason.

They’re loaded at several positions and execute what Bayuk called the “veer” offense to near perfection. The veer is similar to the triple-option offense run by Navy. That explains, in part, how they have four different players with at least 300 yards rushing.

They’re led by All-Ohio quarterback Sam Shafer. He has rushed for nearly 400 yards and four TDs. He has completed 57-of-95 passes for 745 yards, six TDs and two interceptions. Then there’s running back Max Alpert, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound fullback who is averaging more than 10 yards per carry. He has run for 483 yards and six TDs on 48 carries. Add in 6-4, 190-pound All-Ohio split end Jason Bartosik (22 catches, 273 yards, three TDs) and second-team All-Ohio wing back Kyle Polloack (312 yards rushing, 253 yards receiving), and Cuyahoga Heights has a well-oiled machine.

“They still have a very prolific offense,” said Bayuk of whether they resemble last year’s team. “They run the veer option, and they attack you with a lot of different motions and formations. They just do an excellent job with what they do. They get can get you in a closed formation with a couple of wing backs and a tight end, and the next play they can be in empty (five wide receivers) and throw the ball with an outstanding passing game.”

Their defense is impressive as well.

Aside from a 31-0 loss to Kirtland, the No. 1-ranked team in the state in Division V, the Redskins haven’t given up more than eight points in a game. They haven’t faced the Eagles yet, however.

JFK has been on a roll as of late, winning four straight and six of their last seven, including a dominant 41-7 victory over fourth-seeded Independence in the first round (Heights beat Independence 31-7 in Week 10).

The Eagles utilize a balanced offense. Running back Jesse Likens has rushed for 1,045 yards and 12 TDs on 110 carries, averaging 9.5 yards per carry. Cameron Hollobaugh has been outstanding in all phases of the game. He’s the team’s leading tackler as a linebacker. He also has rushed for 466 yards on 61 carries, and he has 466 yards receiving and 11 TDs on 23 receptions. Quarterback Christian Marantis is coming off his best game of the season.

JFK had a fourth-quarter lead against Cuyahoga Heights last year before a few miscues cost them in a 35-20 loss.

“I know some of our kids remember last year and some of the turnovers we had late,” Bayuk said. “They’re aware of the mistakes we made, and I’m sure our kids would like another chance (at them).”

The winner moves on to the regional final with a shot at a state final run. JFK won the Division VII state title 2016, while the Redskins were runners-up in 2016 (Division VI) and 2017 (Division VII).

While Bayuk is excited for another opportunity at moving on, he wants the team to know that winning isn’t the sole goal.

“If winning the state championship is what you have to do in order to feel successful,” he said, “that’s kind of a sad commentary on high school football because only seven teams are going to be successful by that definition at the end of the year. So, we just want to go out and play the very best we can each week. I know everybody says that’s coach-speak or whatever, but it’s the truth. … All of them are creating memories that will last them a lifetime, and that’s what we’re all about.”

The Eagles get another chance to do that Saturday.