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Front line a big key to JFK success

WARREN — There wasn’t one second of hesitation from John F. Kennedy lineman Eddie Kiernan.

The two-way starter was responding to a question asking who the other starters were up front for the Eagles, who play New Bremen at 1:15 p.m. today for the Division VII state championship at Massillon’s Paul Brown Stadium.

Kiernan didn’t name the starters. He practically told each one’s life story. Sounding like an ESPN analyst during the NFL Draft, Kiernan explained techniques his fellow linemen thrived at, their height, weight, any areas they were working on, and he broke down how their specific role helped the Eagles’ line become whole.

He might have rattled off their Social Security number, favorite foods and mother’s maiden names if asked.

“I’ve known almost all those guys my entire high school career,” said Kiernan, a junior captain at center and defensive end. “We’re all super, super close — all real good friends — and that bond, that definitely helps translate in a game when stuff goes wrong. If someone messes up, like if I have a bad snap, I always know my guys are going to pick me up. They’re going to tell me, ‘It’s OK. Next play.’

“That bond, that really, really helps when we’re facing adversity. It helps us push through and know that no matter what happens, my brothers, they’ve got my back and we’re going to get through this together.”

The men up front are a huge reason the Eagles have made it this far.

The line has paved the way for quarterback Cam Hollobaugh’s 1,438 rushing yards and 31 TDs. Running back Jesse Likens, an Air Force Academy commit, adds 881 yards and seven TDs. That’s over 2,300 yards and nearly 40 TDs in just 11 games.

Kiernan, as he so impressively explained, is only part of a gritty group that makes up for any lack of size with toughness, technique and wit. Each provides their own unique niche to what has become a dominating front five, and Kiernan’s explanation provides first-hand perspective:

¯ Left tackle Pat Valent (sophomore, 6-foot-4, 270 pounds): “He’s a sophomore. He’s a huge kid — probably a D-I (Division I college) talent. You know, just great, natural talent and very smart.”

¯ Left guard Michael Gumino (Sr., 6-0, 180): “He’s not the biggest kid in the world, but he’s super scrappy, plays with great technique.”

¯ Right guard Will Toth (Jr., 6-2, 240): “Big, tough-nosed, physical kid. He’s going to do whatever it takes to get it done. He’s a real warrior.”

¯ Right tackle Sammi Hindi (Jr., 6-2, 295): “He’s a real big kid, real tough kid, real strong kid. He made tremendous progress throughout the year, and he’s really turned into the key part to our offensive line.”

Then there’s Kiernan, a 6-1, 230-pound junior who speaks like a veteran and plays like one, too. Apparently, he’s humble as well because he didn’t provide an analysis for his style of play. JFK coach Dom Prologo took care of that for him in a short-but-praiseful manner.

“Eddie is a winner,” he said. “Because of his football IQ, he plays like he’s the biggest and fastest player on the field. We’re so lucky to have him.”

Eagles offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Dominic Menendez added a personal breakdown as well.

“He is the heart and soul of our team and our line,” said Menendez, who was Howland’s head coach from 2014 to 2017. “Our line is built on toughness, and he is the leader.”

Not surprisingly, the defensive line is equally talented and important to Kennedy (9-2), and it’s going to need to be on point today.

New Bremen (9-2) is powered by quarterback Mitchel Hays, a senior who’s completed 90-of-161 passes for 1,252 yards, 13 TDs and three interceptions, while also rushing for 893 yards and 14 TDs. Kiernan and Co. are tasked with containing him.

The Eagles rotate several players on the defensive front. Kiernan and Sal Coletti (6-3, 195) are defensive ends, while Abram Rivera (5-10, 175) is a defensive tackle. They are joined by Brady Mocella, Santino Chiaro, Gumino, Valent and Toth. The pack of players tormented highly acclaimed Newark Catholic quarterback Cole Canter last week, and they hope to do the same against Hays.

Prologo said the success in the trenches is all about physicality.

“We’re only going to be as good as we are up front,” said Prologo, who also praised the work of defensive line coaches Jordaan Simmons and Danny Stella. “That’s the reason we’re where we are — we win up front. Our kids take it personal. They’re physical up front. They understand our scheme, with the simplicity of what we try to do, and that enables them to not only play fast, but it enables them to play a little bit more of a physical style.

“At the end of the day, this is a line-of-scrimmage game, and you win up front.”

The Eagles have one more battle to win.

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