By Ryan Buck
Facing outmanned and overmatched opponents, Cardinal Mooney rolled through its first two Division IV playoff games — against Cleveland John Hay and Struthers — by an average margin of 26.5 points.
Tonight, the Cardinals (8-4) will meet one of the few teams in their division that can match them man-for-man and plays a similarly difficult regular-season schedule.
Historically, they’re not so bad either.
Cleveland Benedictine (9-3) has won six state championships since the state playoffs began, their most recent coming in 2004.
After almost a decade of struggle, 2003 Benedictine graduate and football player Joe Schaefer has the Bengals driving toward a seventh title in his first season as head coach.
Mooney and Benedictine have played three times in the playoffs, with the Bengals taking the 1981 and 1994 contests. Mooney, the eventual state runner-up, won in 1985.
From 1995 to 2010, the two natural rivals scheduled regular-season games. The Bengals dominated the series in the early 2000’s before the Cardinals won the final six meetings.
Memories will be revisited tonight at Stewart Field in Solon, but with a far removed cast of characters.
Mooney, which has held John Hay and Struthers to deceptively high 20 and 14 points, respectively, will have to be at its best defensively.
Benedictine features perhaps the best junior in Ohio and one of the nation’s best in running back Jerome Baker.
Baker, at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, has rushed for 1,447 yards and 25 touchdowns this season. On defense, he has made 120 tackles and picked off three passes.
Cleveland.com sports reporter Mark Kern says, “He is the perfect combination of size, power and speed.”
Baker is complemented by Dontez Rash, a sophomore running back who has gained more than 900 yards while becoming a play-making defensive back.
Benedictine sophomore quarterback Brian Schoeffler plays within a run-first system, but threw for 200 yards and two touchdowns in his team’s first-round win over Woodridge.
Kern says the Bengals’ season turned on a miraculous 80-yard kickoff return as time expired in a Week 6 win over Cleveland Central Catholic. They improved to 4-2 with the 37-36 win.
“Benedictine is quite possibly playing as well as anyone in the state right now,” said Kern, who covered the game.
Associated Press Northeast Inland All-district performers Jordan Jones, Mark Handel and Denver Martin will test Baker and the Bengals’ offense, however.
In addition, will Baker and Rash make enough plays on defense to stop Mooney’s potent rushing attack?
Mooney coach P.J. Fecko, who has four state titles to his name, knows what it takes to advance late into the postseason.
Turnovers will be the name of the game, and a deciding factor.
“All the teams we play are going to be pretty darn good,” Fecko said. “At this point, I think mistakes become an issue. The further you go along in the playoffs, mistakes become an issue.”