By Steve Ruman
The Warren John F. Kennedy High football team will again venture into unknown territory Saturday in a Division VII, Region 25 semifinal game.
Last week, the Eagles had their first meeting with Windham in the first round of the playoffs. Kennedy came away with a 35-12 win.
This time, JFK (6-5) will again face an opponent it has never played before in Ashland Mapleton (8-3). The Eagles and Mounties will square off at Lowell Klinefelter Stadium in Canton.
Mapleton opened its playoff run with a 47-28 win over Valley Christian.
“When you get to this point, you’re going to run into unfamiliarity, that’s part of the playoff atmosphere,” said JFK coach Jeff Bayuk. “The thing is, we played a really good schedule. I think our guys learned to play the game over the course of the year. We’ve gone up against a lot of varied offenses, so that helps. We’ve seen just about all there is to see.”
Given where they were in late September, the Eagles have to be thrilled to be playing in Week 12, regardless of opponent or location. JFK lost four of its first five games — all to playoff teams. At the midway point of the season, fantastic50.net — a website dedicated to providing playoff probabilities based on past performance and future schedule — gave the Eagles a 5 percent chance of making the playoffs. The percentage rose to just 17 percent as late as Week 8.
But Kennedy went 4-1 in the second half of the season to snag the seventh spot in Region 25.
Ironically, it was JFK’s lone loss during the stretch which may have signaled its full resurgence.
Sandwiched between a pair of back-to-back wins was a 14-3 setback at Gilmour Academy (11-0). Bayuk believes the loss to Gilmour actually gave his team the boost of confidence it needed to finish strong.
“We were preaching progress all season long,” Bayuk said. “Even when we were losing, we weren’t losing our cool. We just wanted to see positive growth, we wanted to see development from what was an extremely youthful group.”
“Against Gilmour, we saw all of that. We had an opportunity to beat one of the better teams on our schedule. We just didn’t finish the drives, but our kids walked away from that game realizing the progress they had made. They knew they were headed in the right direction.”
JFK rebounded from the loss to log comfortable wins over Cleveland Central Catholic and Villa Angela-St. Joseph, then went on the road last week to defeat Windham.
“The good news is that we’re playing well, we continue to get better,” Bayuk said. “The bad news is that this week we’re going to go up against a quarterback [Logan Pharmer] who has thrown for over 2,700 yards and 33 touchdowns. This kid, and this team, is the real deal.”
In Mapleton’s win over Valley Christian, Pharmer threw for 266 yards and five touchdowns. He also carried the ball 20 times for 128 yards.
“We’ve seen some really good offenses this year, and this one will be right up with the best of them,” Bayuk said.
While this week’s opponent may be unfamiliar, the Eagles certainly are no stranger to the postseason.
JFK senior running back Isaac Hadley pointed out that Saturday’s game will be his 51st in an Eagles uniform. The Eagles made it to the regional title game during Hadley’s freshman year. They won the Division VII state title in 2016, and played a playoff game a year ago.
“The past playoff experiences are huge, it definitely helps this team,” Hadley said. “Things are altogether different once you get in the playoffs. Having been there three straight years, we kind of know what to expect. We are used to facing teams we’ve never faced before or going places where we’ve never played.
“The experience helps from a mental aspect. We understand the pressures of the playoffs and we sort of embrace the pressure.”
JFK is in the playoffs for the 23rd time in school history. The Eagles have an overall playoff record of 34-20, including five state final appearances and two state titles.