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Chance at redemption: Valley teams seek to atone for 2020 endings

JFK’s Antwan Brown (2) runs the ball behind blocker Michael Mauro (2) during the second half of Saturday nights regional final game at Marlington High School. JFK won 20-13 in overtime. (David Dermer/Warren Tribune Chronicle)

There is a common theme among the three Mahoning Valley schools headed to the state semifinals this weekend. Not just a theme, but also a driving force for all three schools ever since they played their final game of the 2020 season.

Redemption.

“We’re definitely on a mission; we’ve been on a mission since last November,” Ursuline senior Brady Shannon said.

“We’ve been playing all year with a chip on our shoulder,” Springfield senior Beau Brungard explained.

“We’ve been determined to get a second chance since the last time we walked off the field last season,” Warren John F. Kennedy senior Eddie Kiernan noted.

Tonight, Ursuline plays Port Clinton in a Division IV semifinal.

On Saturday in Division VI, Springfield plays Carey, while in Division VII, Warren John F. Kennedy will battle with Newark Catholic.

Ursuline, Springfield and Kennedy all are seeking to erase the memories of a bad ending to an otherwise outstanding 2020 season.

Springfield is hoping to return to the state final for a third straight year. Last season the Tigers fell to Coldwater in the championship game 38-35. Trailing by seven, Coldwater scored a touchdown with 1:36 left in the fourth quarter to tie the game. The Cavaliers then scored on a 26-yard field goal as time expired to secure a 38-35 victory.

“Losing the way we did last year, that’s a feeling that never goes away,” Brungard said. “In a way, that’s a good thing because it has motivated us for the past year.”

“There were some small, fixable mistakes we made in that game. I remember walking off that field angry, sad, upset. I kept telling my teammates, ‘Remember this feeling. Let’s not let it happen again.'”

As an added reminder, the score of last year’s title game is plastered on the wall of the Springfield weight room. Brungard said that having to look at “Coldwater 38 Springfield 35” throughout the offseason set the tone for 2021.

“Adversity can either tear a team apart or bring it closer together,” Brungard said. “We are as close as ever. It started last winter with the off-season conditioning and things just built from there.

“One positive take away from the past two years is that we faced every type of adversity imaginable. That includes our scout team from two years ago, many who are now starters. Experience is a tremendous attribute this time of the year.”

While Springfield lost its state title game last year in heartbreaking fashion, there was little drama in Kennedy’s 31-0 loss to New Bremen in the Division VII state championship.

Kiernan said the lopsided setback immediately triggered the Eagles into redemption mode.

“Literally as we were walking off the field from that game, Brady Mocella and myself made a pact that we wouldn’t let this happen again,” Kiernan said. “Losing the way that we did, it was crushing. I felt horrible for the seniors and I don’t want our senior class to go through that same thing.

“The pain of losing in the title game immediately turned into motivation for the entire team.”

Kiernan noted that the offseason schedule included 5:30 a.m. weightlifting sessions. Accountability was paramount. Expectations were higher than ever. Because there is so much playoff experience within the program — Kiernan will be playing in his 16th postseason game Saturday — there was a collective understanding of what it would take to return to the title game.

“This season was pretty crazy. We lost heartbreaking games to Garfield and Mogadore, we had two of our games canceled, but through it all we truly maintained our focus,” Kiernan said. “Looking back, the adversity was a blessing because it never rattled us and I think it validated everything we worked for during the off-season.”

Ursuline’s 2020 season ended in bizarre fashion. Following playoff wins against Villa Angela-St. Joseph, West Branch and Poland, the Irish were viewed by many as the favorite to win the Division IV state title.

Then, the day before the regional title game against Lake Catholic, Ursuline learned that five of its top players would have to sit out because of COVID-related quarantines. Shannon, the Irish’s standout quarterback, along with the team’s leading rusher, leading receiver and leading tackler missed the game as a result of contact tracing.

Lake Catholic won the game 35-7.

“I never experienced anything like that in my life,” Shannon said. “I literally had to sit in my living room and watch my team lose in the regional final on television.”

Shannon said he felt “an immediate need” to turn the experience into a motivational tool for 2021.

“The following Monday we met as a team, and we made a promise to do whatever it takes to win a regional championship and get to the state final,” Shannon said. “Last week we felt like we got some revenge by winning the region. But we still have something to prove.”

Ursuline endured a 1-9 season in 2018, then went 2-8 in 2019 before turning the corner a year ago.

“Looking back, it’s pretty crazy what the seniors have been through,” Shannon said. “Two very rough seasons to begin our high school careers. Then, just as we started putting everything together last year we kind of had the rug pulled out from under us.”

“Even this year, we went through a lot of ups and downs during the regular season. It’s been a crazy ride but I like to think that everything we’ve been through has made us stronger and it prepared us for the next two weeks.”

Both Ursuline and Springfield play this weekend in Euclid. JFK will play its semifinal game at Marlington.

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