Irish set for Port Clinton
YOUNGSTOWN — Last season, Ursuline felt like it had a chance to win a state championship.
However, heading into the regional final, contact tracing due to a positive COVID-19 case in the school forced four of the team’s best players to have to quarantine that week. Ursuline would then lose to Lake Catholic 35-7.
Now, this year, the Irish, having won last week’s regional final against West Branch, are back in the Division IV state semifinals Friday night against Port Clinton as they chase their first state championship since 2010.
“Being thrown that set of circumstances — that adversity — really motivated our guys this offseason,” head coach Dan Reardon said. “It was really a mantra of unfinished business and playing for those seniors who were denied a chance to accomplish their goals last year.”
“All those things, together with the kids we had coming back, we knew that we definitely had a chance from day one,” Reardon continued. “Our goal is a state championship this year. Our kids, I think they understand week-to-week the things we have to do and not take anything for granted, particularly after what happened last year.”
Port Clinton earned its spot in the state semifinals with a decisive 49-21 win over Van Wert, the defending Division IV state champions.
The team is built around its strength and physicality in the trenches, particularly on the offensive line. Running back Garrett Cornell leads Port Clinton’s rushing attack behind its line play, having averaged 170.5 rushing yards per game in the playoffs, while totaling nine rushing touchdowns.
Quarterback Cameron Gillum is capable of running as well as throwing the ball. His top targets throughout the playoffs have been Tyler Webb and Josh Hurst.
Port Clinton’s defense has been prolific at forcing turnovers throughout the playoffs — having turned opponents over 10 times in four games, so protecting the ball on offense will be key for the Irish.
“You can tell that their defense plays with a lot of confidence,” Reardon said. “They know their responsibilities, they play extremely well, and they play extremely hard. If you look at their scores throughout the year, there’s one game where they gave up some points, but pretty much the entire season it’s been 21 points or less with several shutouts.”
Even with the challenge that Port Clinton poses, Ursuline knows what it is as a team at this point in the season.
Its multi-set offense is capable of adjusting to what the opposing defense tries to take away. If the defense stacks the box to stop the run, senior quarterback Brady Shannon can throw to any one of Dean Boyd, Marc Manning, Jakylan Irving and Will Burney. And if defenses play their safeties in coverage, then the Irish can lean on DeMarcus McElroy, who is coming off his second-best rushing performance of the season, and Shannon’s legs.
“We’re going to do what we’re going to do,” Reardon said. “That said, there’s always changes in the gameplan — there’s always tweaks, but when you get this deep into the season, it’s rare to see a formation or defensive front or coverage or a play that you haven’t seen someone else run. So at this point, it’s just fine-tuning.”
Should the Irish win two more games, they’d claim their first football state title since 2010. Getting this far into the postseason is something most of the coaching staff has experience with, but the players do not.
One of the new experiences for the players is playing on Thanksgiving week. As part of that, the program invited players’ families and Ursuline alumni to tailgate and watch the team’s practice on Thanksgiving morning.
“As coaches, we’re trying to let these guys know what happens if this happens, or that happens,” Reardon said. “For example, a couple weeks ago, we planted the seed in their mind that Thanksgiving week looks a little bit different if we take care of business. Kids don’t know about that unless they’ve been through it or you’ve explained it to them. We’re just trying to keep them aware of what’s coming next. Hopefully, if we get through this week, we’re explaining to them what to expect during championship weekend.”