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Ursuline’s championship journey comes to a head in title game matchup with Clinton-Massie

Correspondent photos / Michael G. Taylor Ursuline’s DeMarcus McElroy (6) breaks through a tackle attempt by West Branch’s Nicholas Wilson (2) and goes on to score a 42-yard touchdown during Ursuline’s regional championship win.

YOUNGSTOWN — Less than three years ago, Ursuline football had won a combined three games in two seasons.

It was a tough time for the program. After winning three straight state titles from 2008-2010, Ursuline had fallen from the precipice of the echelons of high school football in the state of Ohio. The Irish had six losing seasons in nine years after their 2010 title and before last season’s playoff run to the regional final.

Now, on Friday morning, Ursuline will face Clinton-Massie for the Division IV state championship, seeking its fifth overall state title and first since 2010.

But how exactly did Ursuline get to this point?

It started with a change in mentality within the program, from the top, down.

“I think the biggest thing was just shifting the mindset and getting the kids to believe that we were capable of it,” head coach Dan Reardon said.

“It’s just a mindset of we know we’re the best team in the area,” sophomore defensive end Ty’Req Donlow added.

Since the offseason prior to the 2020 season, getting to and winning a state championship has been the goal for the Irish. They expected to be where they are now.

“We had a fantastic offseason going into last year,” Reardon said. “We talked to the team about being a championship-caliber football team because I really believed we had a chance to with the guys and experience we had coming back.”

Still, the road to Canton has come with its share of trials and tribulations.

Ursuline thought they had a strong chance last year to win a state title, but the night before the regional final game against Lake Catholic, several of Ursuline’s best players were contact traced due to close contact with a non-football team member that had tested positive for COVID-19. Those players were forced to miss the game, even though they never tested positive, and the Irish lost 35-7.

Then, in early October, Ursuline lost back-to-back games to St. Vincent-St. Mary and Villa Angela-St. Joseph, but since then have rattled off seven straight wins.

“We could have easily just folded and said the season’s a wrap and not focus on ourselves and come back to work, but that’s what we did,” senior quarterback Brady Shannon said. “We came back that Saturday and got back to work and said that’s not going to happen again. We just kept going out every day and getting better.”

After the way last season ended, Ursuline has used that as a “rallying cry,” which has provided additional motivation for the team — to play for the seniors of last year’s team that have missed out on this chance to play for a state title.

“Remember the disappointment the seniors had last year, how the season ended?” Reardon said. “Our guys have always kept that in their heart. And they’re still close with a lot of those (past seniors). A lot of those guys come and watch practice and watch our games and they remind us of it too. All those things together, I think got us to this point.”

One final obstacle remains now for the Irish on their journey — the Falcons of Clinton-Massie.

Stylistically and philosophically, the two teams are polar opposites offensively. Ursuline wants to go no-huddle, up-tempo, spread the ball around and score quickly and often, while the Falcons will rarely, if ever, throw the ball, instead hoping to physically grind things out on the ground with their Wing-T offense.

Clinton-Massie has thrown just 46 passes all season, while running for 5,044 total yards as a team and averaging a whopping 8.2 yards per carry. Four players have run for at least 500 yards this season, with Carson Vanhoose leading the way with 1,848. Colton Trampler is the team’s other 1,000-plus yard rusher, while Carter Frank is just 35 yards away from 1,000 for the season.

“It starts with (center) Lane Schultz,” Clinton-Massie head coach Dan McSurley said about his team’s offensive line. “They’re all pretty good sized. They’ve been unified and they’ve gotten better each week. Right now, we’re just playing as a team. That’s what it takes to run our style of offense.”

However, even with the different style, the Falcons still score a lot of points. Clinton-Massie is averaging the same number of points per game as Ursuline — 43.7.

“They’re very good at what they do, but they do it a lot differently compared to how we do it,” Reardon said. “They’re patient in that they keep trying to lull you to sleep and then they hit a play. It’s something where we have to really be on point with our responsibilities defensively and we have to do it 50 or 60 times — one three-and-out isn’t going to do it.”

Defensively, the Falcons like to force turnovers, having 14 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. Trampler is the team’s leading tackler and has half the team’s total sacks for the season. Braden Rolf, Kody Zantene, Nathan Wildermuth and Gabe McDowell are also names to look for as Clinton-Massie tries to slow down the Irish’s offense.

“When you have two good offenses, it’s going to come down to which team is going to play better defense,” Reardon said. “I think it’s going to be a fun game to watch if you like seeing different types of high school football mentalities and styles and everything else.”

Kickoff is set for 10:30 a.m. at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.

nmadhavan@tribtoday.com

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