Lessons were learned along Ursuline High's path to last year's Division IV state football
Lessons were learned along Ursuline High's path to last year's Division IV state football championship.
Even more were learned in the months leading up to the 2001 season.
"Our kids realize that you can't take anything for granted," coach Jim Vivo said. "We could go 1-9 as easily as we went 9-1 last year unless we prepare every day."
Two off-season incidents have reinforced that belief.
In March, junior tight end-defensive end Louis Irizarry suffered a mild stroke during a weightlifting session. A month later, senior fullback-linebacker Scott Smaltz was severely injured in an automobile accident.
Suddenly, a team that had experienced the highs of a state championship was forced to pick itself up again.
Hard to detect: "We were joking around at first, because he's a comedian," junior running back Terrence Graves remembered of Irizarry that March day. "Then, just out of nowhere ... we thought he was playing. I was the first one to notice he wasn't."
Irizarry remembers slurring his speech, feeling disoriented and numb on the right side of his body. Coaches immediately called an ambulance, and Irizarry was rushed to Northside Medical Center where he was admitted for five days.
"I had so much support from the team," Irizarry said. "Every day, there were three to four guys visiting."
After several tests and varying diagnoses, it was determined that Irizarry busted a small blood vessel, causing a clot that healed quickly.
"For a week, every night there, I was asking doctors, 'Am I ever going to play?' " Irizarry said.
In the end, Irizarry heard the answer he had been waiting for. The satisfaction of returning to the game unscathed will hit him hardest in the moments before the Irish's first game, he said.
"Thank God he's OK, because he's an outstanding talent," Vivo said. "He's a great kid on top of being a great football player."
A month after Irizarry's scare, Ursuline received the news of Smaltz's car accident, which partially paralyzed his left arm.
"Right then, I forgot about me altogether," Irizarry said. "Scott is our motivation now."
On his way back: Smaltz underwent surgery to restore movement in his shoulder and elbow and is expecting to have another surgery to restore movement in his hand. His rehabilitation won't begin for another year.
"It's been very hard, but I've had a lot of support from friends and family," Smaltz said. "I'm taking it one day at a time. It happened, and I can't change that. I do what I have to do to pull through."
Although he will miss his senior season, Smaltz will not be forgotten by the Irish; he was named a team captain, and he plans to attend practice once school starts.
"It's brought us closer and given us a reality check," senior center Tom Manning said of the adversity.
Vivo said, "We're a real tight group, similar to last year. Our kids believe that's why you win. You win with chemistry. We have a lot of really good football players, but they realize they're nothing without the team."
Ursuline is coming off a 2000 season in which it went 14-1, including a 49-37 victory over Coldwater in the state title game at Canton's Fawcett Stadium.
A key to Ursuline capturing its first state championship was the rushing attack of Graves and then-freshman Delbert Ferguson, who combined for 499 yards and seven touchdowns.
Ferguson's 280 yards on 23 carries, including five touchdowns, set a Division IV single-game record.
"We'll see eight- and nine-man fronts all the time," Vivo said of 2001. "Delbert snuck up on people [last year] -- we had [Justin] Adams back and everyone was talking about [Boardman's] Evan Beard and [Warren Harding's Maurice] Clarett. They know now. The secret's out."
Graduation takes toll: Not only must Graves and Ferguson run through attacking defenses, but they must adjust to a reconfigured line.
Ursuline graduated 15 seniors and 11 starters from its state-title team. Among them were quarterback Josh Swogger and a host of effective linemen.
"You win with people up front," Vivo said. "We have good running backs, we have good receivers [including senior Jimmy Riley], but they can't get the ball and run the ball without linemen."
With Swogger now playing at Washington State, the Irish needed to find a replacement. Vying for the job when practice began were senior Pat Sipusic and sophomore Darryl Clark.
"Pat has experience playing in big games because he was on the baseball team that went to two state championship games. He's a leader," Vivo said. "Darryl's got a tremendous amount of tools. He throws the ball really well and he's tall [6-foot-2]."
As defending champion, the Irish know they'll be watched closely this season. It's how they respond that counts.
"We know how it feels to be on top," center Tom Manning said. "We know what it takes now."