Following the trend: Kennedy back in postseason
WARREN — It’s not a right of passage for the John F. Kennedy football team to be in the playoffs.
It just seems that way since Jeff Bayuk took over six years ago.
The Eagles are back in the postseason and hope to start another run as they travel to fourth-seeded Independence at 7 p.m. tonight.
JFK (7-3), which has qualified for the playoffs five straight seasons, has reached the regional final in three of the last four years. As fun as it has been for the Eagles, the success also brings with it a bit of anxiety.
“It’s almost like a sense of relief,” said Bayuk of advancing to the playoffs. “… There’s a lot of pressure on those kids to meet the expectations. The expectations are really high. The other night, when they knew they were in, we were playing Cleveland St. Joe’s (the next day), and it just seemed like a burden was lifted off their shoulders, and they could just go play. They really did well against a team that I thought we were outmanned.”
JFK has been on a roll since a 2-2 start to the season, winning five its last six.
Of their seven wins, five have come against teams in larger divisions, including last week’s victory over Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph, a Division V team that came in with a 6-3 record. The difficult schedule can lead to some injuries (JFK lost two-way starters Jordan Edmondson and Nate McCue in Week 3) and a few more losses than Bayuk would like, but it also has the Eagles ready for the increased competition of the playoffs.
“The physicality of it helps us,” Bayuk said, “but what really helps is playing the speed because when we get into the playoffs, it doesn’t seem like the teams are as fast as the teams in our league and some of the other teams on our schedule.
“There aren’t too many schools that are playing up three divisions. When you do that, you’re taking a chance (with injuries), but we like to play some local teams, and we like the challenge.”
The challenges don’t get any easier.
Independence (7-3) also has victories over upper-division teams, beating Division II Cleveland John Adams (5-5) as well as Division IV Lutheran East (7-3). The Blue Devils boast a balanced offense led by sophomore quarterback Michael Tommer, who has completed 75-of-140 passes (54 percent) for 1,289 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Versatile sophomore running back Kyle Zygmunt is another catalyst, with 562 rushing yards and nine TDs on just 60 carries as well as 21 receptions for 521 yards and six TDs. Receiver Jake Mitrisin has a team-high 22 catches for 398 yards and four TDs, and tight end Braden Sears (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) has 15 grabs for 240 yards and four TDs.
“(The quarterback) is a good thrower and a good runner,” Bayuk said. “They complement their passing game with about eight different kinds of screens. They screen the ball all over the place. That’ll be a challenge for us because we stunt so much.
“They’re a good football team. They’re similar to us in that the three teams they lost to and the three teams we lost to are all playoff teams. And bigger playoff teams.”
The Eagles counter with a balanced attack as well.
Running back Jesse Likens has played a much larger role since Edmondson went down. The speedy junior leads the Eagles in rushing (865 yards, nine TDs) and provides a nice complement to the aerial attack led by quarterback Christian Marantis and wide receivers Cameron Hollobaugh (476 yards receiving and 450 yards rushing) and Savone Williamson (17 receptions, 380 yards).
Hollobaugh, a linebacker, is the leading tackler on a defense that is playing its best ball of the season. JFK held St. Joe’s to its lowest output of the year last week and has given up more than 13 points in a game just once since Week 4.
“We really feel like we’ve made good strides, significant strides in the last three or four weeks,” Bayuk said. “We really got better. If that translates to a win on Saturday, that’s great. If it doesn’t, I know we’ve improved.
“That middle part of the schedule is really tough, with Girard and Garrettsville Garfield. We weathered the storm and ended up undefeated in the league and winning a league championship, so hopefully we’re peaking at the right time.”