BY MIKE POPOVICH
Repository sports writer
The Kirtland Hornets are seasoned veterans when it comes to state championship weekend.
Head coach Tiger LaVerde’s team beat Coldwater in the 2011 Division V championship game. The Cavaliers avenged the loss last year when they beat Kirtland for the title.
The Hornets will have a chance to make it two out of three Friday when they face Haviland Wayne Trace at Fawcett Stadium for the Division VI crown.
LaVerde has built one of the best small-school football powers in Ohio.
The Hornets finished the regular season No. 1 in the Associated Press Division VI state poll. Their only loss in the last three seasons came to Coldwater — by a point — in the 2012 Division V final.
What contributes to Kirtland’s continued success?
“We have awesome kids, and it’s a great community with great family support,” LaVerde said. “We ask a lot of the kids, and the parents allow the kids to work very hard. A lot of the dads coach youth football, and we have a good youth football program.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a great run of players. I think success builds on success, and more kids want to be a part of it. Our roster has grown from, I think, 36 to 72, 73 kids.
“Having fun is a part of it. We try to have a ton of fun every single day, and I think kids want to be a part of it.”
Ironman Ryan Loncar has been a part of Kirtland’s championship run from the beginning. The Hornets safety made his 57th straight start last week, tying the state record set by Mogadore’s Tommy Lee from 1999 to 2002.
Running back Sam Kukura, offensive lineman Mike Cymbal and defensive lineman Canon Schroeder also started with Loncar as sophomores in the 2011 title game.
“They played the entire game and all did last year as well,” LaVerde said. “... They’ve played in numerous, numerous playoff games.”
LaVerde and his family know a lot about continued success on the football field. His brother Matt was an All-Ohio Athletic Conference linebacker and national champion at Mount Union.
Most of Kirtland’s wins this year have a Mount Union flavor to them. The Hornets’ average victory margin during the regular season was almost 50 points. They scored over 50 points nine times and over 60 six times. A regular season-low 41 points against Cuyahoga Heights still resulted in a 27-point victory.
The Hornets were forced to win last week’s state semifinal against Bishop Ready a different way. Kirtland drove 55 yards in the final two minutes and beat Ready 10-7 on Brad Hauptman’s 22-yard field goal as time expired.
“Every week we talked about being excited to play a great competitive game, play four quarters and look forward to the challenge,” LaVerde said. “Being down seven going into the fourth quarter or down 14, we want to be mentally prepared for that.
“We actually had two really good drives in the fourth quarter. The first one unfortunately ended in a fumble, but the second one we got down there and kicked a field goal.
“I was really proud of the kids and how they competed.”