Say it ain’t so
Uncharacteristic mistakes doom JFK in title game
MASSILLON — The words were hard for John F. Kennedy football coach Dom Prologo to say.
He hasn’t had to say them at any point during the Eagles’ postseason run to the Division VII state championship. This time was different. This time it hurt.
“The moment got a little big for us,” he said, “and we never recovered from that.”
A team with the highest of expectations couldn’t put it together on the biggest of stages. New Bremen took over in the second half and ended up dominating the Division VII state championship game, 31-0, on Friday at Massillon’s Paul Brown Stadium.
The Eagles (9-3) looked frazzled from the start and never found a rhythm against a Cardinals team that looked determined to earn the first football state championship in school history. They held JFK to 133 total yards, limiting a team built on running the ball to 61 rushing yards.
“Obviously that was a big issue,” Prologo said. “We couldn’t do what we normally do. Give them credit, they were more physical than we were today, and they won the line of scrimmage. That hasn’t happened at all (this year). That’s the first time it happened, and I give them a lot of credit. They came out, they won the line of scrimmage and they won the ball game.”
New Bremen (10-2) won at all phases of the game.
The Cardinals, who nearly dissolved their football program a few years ago, scored on special teams, showed balance on offense and didn’t commit a penalty. Still, JFK was only down 7-0 at half, thanks to some impressive red-zone defense.
New Bremen was stuffed inside the 20-yard line on its first drive of the game. JFK responded with one of its best drives, moving to the Cardinals’ 45 before stalling and punting. The Cardinals started to take over from there.
“It was tough tackling the quarterback (JFK’s Cameron Hollobaugh),” New Bremen coach Chris Schmidt said. “I was really worried about the running back (Jesse Likens) because he’s got quick feet and whatnot. That was big (being able to stop the run). Early on, they were moving it, and we didn’t have the ball much, and so once we started to clamp down on that, it really made a difference.”
When the Cardinals did have the ball, they gave JFK all kinds of problems.
After forcing a JFK punt, New Bremen drove 80 yards on nine plays, with running back Hunter Schaefer scoring from 39 yards out with 8:19 left in the second quarter for a 7-0 lead. JFK committed one of its two fumbles on the first play of the ensuing drive, as Sejjan Couto was stripped on a short pass. The Eagles’ defense rose to the occasion, however.
New Bremen completed a 31-yard pass to the 1-yard line on the next play after the fumble, but the Eagles held strong. They stuffed the Cardinals on three straight runs, and then Nick Fordeley picked off a tipped pass on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
JFK had some momentum at that point, but another promising drive stalled at midfield after a holding penalty. The Eagles had nine penalties for 62 yards, lost two fumbles and gave up 101 yards rushing to Schaefer, a backup filling in for regular starter Zach Bertke.
“We didn’t make plays when we needed to, we didn’t tackle well and we just had an uncharacteristic afternoon,” Prologo said. “We did some things today that we hadn’t done all year.”
The game unraveled quickly in the second half.
New Bremen drove 66 yards on eight plays against a defense that had been outstanding throughout the playoffs. Again, a penalty played a critical role. The Eagles ripped the ball out of the hands of star quarterback Mitchell Hays and recovered the fumble, but Hollobaugh was called for a facemask penalty that negated the turnover and put the Cardinals at the JFK 15.
New Bremen scored three plays later for a 14-0 lead. JFK faced third-and-15 at its own 11-yard line on the next drive, and Hollobaugh had to come out for a play because of what appeared to be an equipment issue. His backup fumbled the snap, and New Bremen recovered. The Cardinals had to settle for a field goal and a 17-0 lead with 6:02 left in the third quarter, but things only got worse for Kennedy.
The Eagles had holding penalty and a sack that led to fourth-and-22 from their own 15. David Homan caught the punt, made a few players miss and returned it 45 yards for a 24-0 lead and a game-sealing touchdown late in the third quarter.
“We fell apart,” said Hollobaugh, a senior who came in with more than 1,400 yards and 30 TDs rushing. “We let the moment get to us, and we weren’t in the game at all.
“It’s a horrible feeling. They had a great game, and we just didn’t come to play.”
It was one of the only times that could be said about JFK.
The Eagles, playing in the sixth title game in school history, pieced together incredible victories throughout the playoffs — including a last-second victory over Newark Catholic in the state semifinal. Prologo and his coaching staff reached the championship game in their first season together, taking a school community along for another wild ride.
“It was special,” Prologo said. “I love these guys. They’re like family. I’ve been with a lot of these guys since they were freshmen, and they were special. … I told them (after the game), ‘Obviously this isn’t the way we wanted things to finish, but I love them. They had an unbelievable run. They represented their families, they represented Kennedy the way the we want them to, and we appreciate everything they’ve done for us.'”