AVON — The Highland football team will play its fifth playoff game in the last three years tonight, and Avon is the opponent for the third time.
The old Inland Conference members have developed plenty of familiarity recently, though many of the players are downplaying that importance. With so much roster turnover since they met in the 2013 Division II regional finals, all they have to look at is reputation.
The third-seeded Eagles (9-1) and sixth-seeded Hornets (6-4) are known for fundamentally sound, aggressive and mistake-free play as they prepare to meet in a D-II, Region 4 first-round game.
“This is our third time playing Highland, and we know they’re a great team,” Cincinnati-bound Avon quarterback Jake Sopko said. “They’re well-coached and will hit you hard. That’s what they do each year.”
Winners of 58 of its last 62 regular-season games, Avon has found another gear since losing to state-title contender Midview 55-35 in Week 4. The Eagles rang up 48, 63 and 49 points on fellow playoff teams North Ridgeville, Berea-Midpark and Olmsted Falls.
Despite being well-balanced in recent years, coach Mike Elder’s team is all about offense this year with Sopko (2,393 yards passing, 26 TDs, 1 int.), three-year starting running back Gerett Choat (1,248 yards rushing, 339 receiving, 21 combined TDs) and right guard Sam Gerak (6-5, 283), who has offers from Northwestern, Illinois, Rutgers and a number of Mid-American Conference schools.
Avon is averaging 45.1 points, including an eye-popping 50.1 since losing to Midview.
“I know their quarterback and their running back have been together for a while,” Hornets outside linebacker Ethan Suran said. “Their receivers are pretty good. They’ve got chemistry together and make it happen.”
Highland is coming off an upset loss at Kent Roosevelt but does not have a shortage of confidence. That is due in large part to a 38-28 upset of then-undefeated Aurora.
The challenge tonight is steep, however, against the Eagles’ four-wide receiver offense. Choat is 85 yards rushing away from joining a very exclusive club of 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a career, while Will Heilman (49, 878 yards, 14 TDs) and Darrin Davis (41, 489, 3) are the latest in a long line of underrated Avon receivers.
The Hornets’ undersized but aggressive defense, which is led by defensive end Tyler Frederick (6 tackles for loss, 2½ sacks), outside linebackers Suran (5½, 2½) and Chris Burnside (9, 3) and safety Taran Treb, knows creating turnovers and limiting big plays will be key.
“Defensively, we’re working together, trying to stay on the same page,” Suran said. “We’re making sure everyone is doing their job.”
Offensively, Highland will rely on its read-option to set up potential big gains through play-action. Leading rusher Tyler Zelinski (2,073 yards total offense, 20 total TDs) has 54 carries for only 94 yards (1.7 average) over the last four weeks, though the emergence of running back Manny Dela Cerna (55 carries, 290 yards over last 2 games) has something to do wit that.
The Hornets know getting Zelinski going will be crucial to maintaining momentum on the ground against another talented four-man linebacking corps led by Alex Rimko (10 TFL, 4 sacks) and Eric Steinmetz (9, 5½) on the inside.
“We’ve got to establish our run game early and get a really good push up front so we can break our back and Zelinski loose,” Highland right tackle Ben Smith said.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.