With 17 teams qualifying for the postseason and Mooney and Ursuline finishing as state champions, 2009 was a banner year for Mahoning Valley football.
With two-a-day practices lurking, many wonder if an encore is possible.
Unlike some years when as few as a dozen area teams make the OHSAA playoffs, last season was a bonanza.
Four teams in each of Divisions III and VI earned playoff berths. Divisions IV and V had three teams each qualify. Boardman in Division I and Canfield and Howland in Division II also earned November playing dates.
Ursuline’s state title win over Coldwater made the Irish the Valley’s first team to win back-to-back championships. Mooney’s victory over Columbus DeSales in the final gave the Cardinals their third crown since 2004. Both are independents now that the Steel Valley Conference no longer exists.
The All-American Conference had a stellar regular season as eight of its members (Canfield, Howland, Poland, Hubbard, Salem, Campbell, Lakeview and Girard) advanced to Week 11.
The 16-team Inter Tri-County League had five postseason teams: Crestview, East Palestine and Columbiana from Tier One and Western Reserve and McDonald from Tier Two.
The other playoff team was independent Warren JFK in Division VI.
Week 11 results were better than usual as 10 teams posted victories to advance to Week 12.
Among the more interesting opening-round playoff contests was Crestview’s 20-14 win over ITCL Tier One rival East Palestine.
The league-champion Rebels had defeated the then-undefeated Bulldogs in the regular season. In the rematch, the Rebels were able to not only control the clock, but a touchdown with 10:47 left in the fourth quarter, put East Palestine in a 20-6 hole.
“It was ugly,” Crestview coach Paul Cusick said. “We knew they were going to come out and be pretty aggressive, but we were able mix the pass with the run a little bit and do just enough to be effective.”
Crestview’s reward was a date with Ursuline, the defending Division V state champion who blanked Garfield Heights Trinity, 28-0.
Among the big schools, Boardman lost 17-0 to Cleveland St. Ignatius while Canfield and Howland won. The Cardinals defeated defending state champs Aurora and Howland ousted Medina Highland, 28-21.
In Division III, Mooney, Poland and Hubbard won easily while Salem needed overtime for a 38-31 win over Granville. In Division IV, Campbell fell to Chagrin Falls, 41-13, while Lakeview defeated Akron Manchester, 24-13, and Girard walloped Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, 42-7.
All four Division VI teams dropped their openers, an omen for Week 12 when only three Valley teams survived. Two of them — Poland and Mooney — were headed for a showdown in the Division III Region 9 final after Mooney steamrolled Hubbard, 55-0, while Poland edged Akron Hoban, 10-7.
Howland and Canfield lost close contests (19-14 for the Tigers against Ashland, 31-24 for the Cards against Mentor Lake Catholic).
In Division V, Ursuline had little trouble dismissing Crestview, 48-14.
“Tonight, the speed was tough to overcome and that’s a factor,” Cusick said of the Irish. “We know what we need to work on and, if you want to get to that level, you’ve got to compete at that level.”
Ursuline coach Dan Reardon said the final score wasn’t indicative of the game.
“We were playing a very good football team that had 10 wins under its belt,” Reardon said. “We expected a fight and we got a fight from them,” he said. “Defensively they were doing some blitzes that we had to adjust to. Once we started doing that, we started moving the ball better.”
In their first football game against each other, the Mooney-Poland showdown lived up to its billing.
Early in the second quarter, after the Bulldogs capped a long drive with a game-tying touchdown pass, Mooney’s defense gathered on the sidelines and made a vow.
“We got together and said, ‘We’re not giving up anything else,’” senior Mark Pelini said. “We just came out and played with a passion.”
The Cardinals defense then forced seven straight punts — the first six on three-and-outs — and senior Braylon Heard made two huge touchdown runs in the third quarter to propel Mooney to a 24-7 victory at Fitch Falcon Stadium in Austintown.
“Unreal talent,” said Bulldogs coach Mark Brungard, when asked about Mooney’s defense. “And you know [Mooney defensive coordinator] Ron Stoops knows a little about defense.
“We just couldn’t get in a rhythm in the second half.”
Poland’s defense bottled up the Cardinals’ potent running game for much of the first half before the West Virginia-bound Heard took over midway through the third quarter.
He scored on touchdown runs of 18 and 59 yards in a span of 69 seconds to give Mooney a 21-7 lead.
“Heard is special,” Brungard said.
Meanwhile up in Aurora, Ursuline suffered its one scare of the postseason as the Irish trailed Cuyahoga Heights, 28-14, at halftime of their Region 17 final.
Ursuline senior defensive back DeAndre Harris admitted there was concern.
“We were kind of nervous but once we got into the locker room, the coaches left and let the players get together,” Harris said. “We decided we weren’t leaving with a loss so we came out fired up.”
The Irish were blazing in the second half, outscoring the Redskins 33-0 to cruise to a 47-28 victory and their third consecutive Region 17 crown.
“I gave them two options — go hard or go home,” said Irish running back Allen Jones, a senior captain who rushed for 190 yards in the second half. “We just came out in the second half and played our butts off.”
Mooney’s win set up a rematch with Steubenville in the Division III state semifinal. In 2008, the Cardinals were eliminated by Big Red.
Not this time as Steubenville limped off the field from a 45-7 pounding. Heard rushed for 298 yards and scored three touchdowns to lead the Cardinals to its 10th appearance in a state championship contest.
Ursuline also romped in the state semifinal, pulverizing Woodridge, 48-6, in Canton.
Both state finals had rematch implications. Mooney faced Columbus DeSales, the team it had defeated 21-14, in Week 2 at Youngstown State University’s Stambaugh Stadium. Ursuline’s opponent was Coldwater, the team it defeated in 2000 in the Division V state championship game.
Just like the semifinals, neither championship game was close. At Massillon’s Paul Brown Tiger Stadium, Mooney rolled 35-7. A few hours later at Canton’s Fawcett Stadium, Ursuline pulverized Coldwater, 55-25.
“We all came together as a brotherhood and worked really hard for this,” Mooney senior left tackle Eric Franklin said. “It was worth every minute.”