Bar raised, Knights’ next objective is to conquer the ‘Hill'

Bar raised, Knights’ next objective is to conquer the ‘Hill'

Image Credit: Justin Smith

The West Holmes football team’s motto all season has been “Raise the bar.”

The Knights (14-0) were able to do just that after a 31-21 victory over Holy Name in the Div. III, Region 10 championship game in Canal Fulton on Nov. 19.

West Holmes advanced to the first Final Four in program history.

If the Knights are to continue their season, they’ll next have to conquer the "Hill," as in the Chardon Hilltoppers (14-0).

West Holmes and Chardon will meet in a state semifinal game on Friday at Twinsburg’s Tiger Stadium at 7 p.m.

The Hilltoppers, the defending state champions on a 26-game winning streak, dominated Dover 31-3 in the Region 9 title game in Ravenna.

Fifth-year West Holmes coach Zach Gardner told his team after the regional final, “We’re going to enjoy every minute of this, but by no means are we finished.”

By Monday afternoon’s practice, the Knights’ attention was solely on top-ranked Chardon.

“We're focused,” Gardner said. “Our kids understand where we're at, and they understand the task that we have. We're excited. It’s one of those measuring sticks to see where the program’s at. We told the kids, ‘If you want to be the state champion, you’ve got to beat the state champion at some point,’ and that's what we have before us.”

Scouting the Knights

Sophomore Sam Williams-Dixon led West Holmes with 28 carries for 144 yards and two TDs against Holy Name while adding four catches for 93 yards and a TD.

Bret Shearer added highlight film material in a 13-yard TD run.

Williams-Dixon has a school-record 36 total TDs including 13 in four playoff games. He’s carried the ball 241 times for 1,552 yards and 25 TDs while catching 53 passes for 976 yards and 10 TDs.

“They’re a terrifying team when you look at all of their playmakers,” Chardon coach Mitch Hewitt said. “Number 24 (Williams-Dixon) is explosive. He will be the best player on the field Friday.”

Senior quarterback Noah Clark returned after missing the previous game due to an injury to go 14-for-20 passing for 165 yards and one TD.

Clark, the Eastern District Player of the Year, is 168-for-258 passing for 2,819 yards, 27 TDs and five interceptions.

Garrett Eastep (51-819 receiving, 10 TDs), Tucker Kaufman (40-591, six) and Shearer (28-435, four) have been key pass catchers.

“They’re very well-coached and brilliant in the ways they use 24 and get him the ball,” Hewitt said. “The quarterback (Noah Clark) is an excellent playmaker. You can tell from the film that 5 (Shearer) is a tough player and they have some really good receivers. Obviously, the line has done the job up front.”

Elisha Baldridge leads the defense with 231 tackles with Shearer (142) and Blake McCombs (134) next. Kaufman has nine interceptions.

Scouting the Hilltoppers

The Hilltoppers are led by seniors Sean Carr (RB), Alex McDonald (TE-DE) and Nathaniel Sulka (TE-S), along with junior Alex Henry (QB). Sulka, 6-foot-4, and McDonald (6-3) have both committed to play for Youngstown State.

Like nearly all teams in Chardon history, the Hilltoppers prefer to run the ball.

Henry has rushed for a team-high 1,191 yards and 20 TDs while passing for 745 yards and seven scores. Carr has 1,016 yards rushing and a team-high 23 TDs.

Sulka leads the team with 12 receptions for 261 yards and three TDs.

The Knights haven’t faced another opponent whose offense even slightly resembles the Hilltoppers’ shotgun attack, which has many wing-T principles.

“The way that they run their offense is phenomenal,” Gardner said. “They use their wings and fullbacks to do some of the things that offensive linemen would usually do, like trap people. There are fakes built into every play, and the quarterback is a magician handling the ball. It's tough to read your keys against them.”

Chardon’s defense has held opponents to seven or fewer points in half its games. Sulka leads the way with 84 tackles while defensive tackle Alex Kisley has 26 tackles for losses and nine sacks.

Two outstanding cornerbacks and a free safety enable Chardon to trust its pass defense while stacking the line against the run.

Dover had been averaging 360 total yards a game and 32 points, but the Hilltoppers came away with three interceptions and held them to three points.

“Chardon is very sound, and the coaches have worked hard with their game plans to take away certain players,” Gardner said.

The Knights clearly have the utmost respect for the Hilltoppers but are confident in their own abilities.

“We do things offensively and defensively to play in games like this and have success,” Gardner said. “We are confident in our players and schemes.

“Our kids are very cerebral. On offense they understand the coverages and different fronts and what we need to do to attack them, so that makes us very multiple. We're just gonna have to take what their defense gives us, and when we have an opportunity to make a big play, we're gonna have to make that play.”

Chardon tradition

Chardon earned the second state title in program history when it defeated Columbus St. Francis DeSales 31-28 in double-overtime last year. The Hilltoppers, in the Final Four for the eighth time, also won the 1994 state title.

Hewitt played on Chardon’s 1998 state runner-up team and came in second in the Ohio Mr. Football voting. He went on to play linebacker at Bowling Green for Urban Meyer.

Incredibly, Hewitt and Gardner were on opposing teams as players 23 years before their upcoming showdown as coaches.

“I was a scraggly sophomore who played special teams at Dover when Hewitt was a senior,” Gardner said of a 20-14 Hilltoppers’ win over the Tornadoes in the regional semifinals in Kent. “I remember Hewitt had a barbed-wire tattoo when no one had a tattoo like that. He was freaking intimidating; he was a dude.”

The 2021 Hilltoppers returned only two starters on offense and three on defense but have made a name for themselves.

“I think these seniors felt sort of like the ‘forgotten class’ coming after our state championship team, and they’ve used that as motivation,” Hewitt said. “I’ll admit I’ve used it as motivation myself because some people said we’d be rebuilding. I knew we’d be good, but I’d be lying if I said I thought we’d be 14-0 and in the Final Four again.”

Hewitt is just the third head coach at Chardon in the last 42 years. He credits the consistency of the coaching staff and commitment of the players for the success.

“We’re like the Pittsburgh Steelers of high school football,” Hewitt said. “I think what sets Chardon apart is that we’ve been doing things a certain way for a long, long time. My defensive and offensive coordinators have both been with me for 11 years. Chardon football has been doing things in the off-season like running the hills at Alpine Valley or on the beach at (Mentor) Headlands (State Park), forever.”

EXTRA POINTS — The Knights have been kidding standout two-way lineman Walker Graham for being caught from being at the 2-yard line after a 25-yard fumble return against Holy Name. “It's been a point of humor with the team about him not punching in that fumble,” Gardner said with a laugh.

—Several thousand fans met the team bus at 11 p.m. to celebrate with the players and coaches after the regional final win at the Millersburg Courthouse. “It was an awesome night,” Gardner said.

—West Holmes invited all football alum from its 60-plus years to watch the Thanksgiving Day practice and meet the players afterward. Practice will go from 8:30-10:30 a.m.

—On a personal note, this reporter is a proud 1989 graduate of Chardon and was a member of the Hilltoppers’ first playoff team in 1987. As a sports reporter for the last 24 years in the Wayne-Holmes area, this will be the first matchup between one of the teams from “down here” against the Hilltoppers. I have a great deal of respect for both Chardon and West Holmes and wish the teams a good, healthy game.

—Finally, parking is notoriously slow going at Twinsburg. The host school is advising fans to arrive extra early to avoid backups. There will be a $3 parking fee.

Aaron Dorksen can be emailed at Follow him on Twitter at @AaronDorksen.