CANTON — Philip LaVerde cupped the microphone handle in his hands and stared blankly at the floor deep beneath Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on Dec. 3.
Mere minutes had passed since LaVerde and his Kirtland teammates had reluctantly accepted the Division VI state runner-up trophy following a 14-6 loss to Marion Local in a hard-hitting championship game.
LaVerde’s white jersey sported stains of multiple colors, including blood splotches from the 48-minute slugfest between the state’s top two Division VI teams as well as the blue and yellow paint rubbed off from the Marion Local jerseys and helmets.
“You don’t have to be good in seventh, eighth or ninth grade to be a good varsity,” LaVerde said. “I hope we showed the young kids how to work hard and they’ll be great.”
The eight-point loss to Marion Local left a hole in the hearts of the Hornets, particularly their 11-man senior class. The Hornets came to Canton this weekend on a mission to bring home with them the program’s seventh state championship trophy and third title in four years.
Instead, they came home with their second straight silver trophy that will go in next to the four other silver runner-up trophies the program garnered with state runner-up finishes in 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2021).
But this journey, the one this year’s Hornets just completed, was much longer than the four-month jaunt that it appears to be. It’s much longer than the 12-month marathon that began the day after last year’s 20-16 loss to Versailles in the Division V state championship game.
This journey is one for the ages, a benchmark and a blueprint for any team — anywhere — that might not have success in their early years.
You see, this year’s senior class did not win a game in fifth and sixth grade, dominated by teams from neighboring towns. In seventh grade, this year’s senior class won three games.
On Dec. 3, they played for a state championship with a 15-0 record this season.
“Didn’t win a game,” Philip LaVerde recalled as he walked off the field in Canton. “We couldn’t even run the ball back then and that’s what we do at Kirtland. It wasn’t good. But this senior class stuck together. There’s not a lot of us, but we’ll fight like hell. We worked six years for this because we weren’t very good.”
His father, Coach Tiger LaVerde, has similar memories of those early years when the Class of 2023 was admittedly tough to watch.
“They weren’t very good,” he said. “In sixth grade, they didn’t win a game. But they turned themselves into one of the best teams in the state, 15-0 going into this game today.”
It’s a senior class that includes a kid who didn’t play football until eighth grade (Tommy Gogolin), a kid who struggled to get in the mandatory 10 games in youth football because he wasn’t good enough (George Prusock Jr.), a kid who transformed his body his senior year for health reasons (Joe Pekar), a kid who rebounded from multiple torn ligaments that robbed him of his junior year (Adam Knaack), a kid who lost a preseason quarterback derby and settled for a new position on defense (Luke Chuko).
Each senior, even the ones not just mentioned, had reasons to walk away at some time — and they didn’t.
Nor did they walk away when things got tough against Marion Local.
When the Flyers drove deep into Kirtland territory in the first half, a goal-line stand — highlighted by a punishing tackle by junior Macguire Boyd — kept Marion Local off the board.
After throwing a pick-six that gave Marion Local a 14-0 lead in the third quarter, freshman quarterback Jake LaVerde threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to pull his team within a score a 14-6 in the third.
Facing a Marion Local squad that moved the ball at will all year, the Hornets held the Flyers to 142 total yards — including 66 yards rushing on 37 carries (1.78 yards per carry).
Countless instances from the title bout can be cited. There was zero quit, even when there was ample reason and opportunity to do so.
“I hope,” Prusock said, “I showed these kids how to be the best leader they can be and how to take control of the locker room and play every play like it’s your last.”
For the 2022 senior class, that final play came to fruition when Marion Local kneeled with the ball and began the raucous celebration of its program’s 13th state championship. While the Flyers posed for pictures with the golden championship trophy they had just won, the Hornets consoled each other at the far end of the field.
Sitting off by itself with no one around it was the second-place silver trophy, like no one wanted it.
But that trophy should find a special place in the school’s trophy case. It’s a reminder that it’s not where you start — it’s where you finish.
Winless in fifth and…