Pirates' record-breaking campaign comes to end

Pirates' record-breaking campaign comes to end
Dave Mast

In one of the game's earlier defining moments, Garaway's Clayton Downs, 53, leaps high into the air to block a field goal attempt to keep the game scoreless.


Following Kirtland’s 17-0 win over Garaway in the Division VI state semifinal contest in Louisville on Friday, Nov. 24, one team celebrated a victory while the other celebrated in a very different way amid tears and heartache.

Having qualified for the state tournament finals in 12 of the past 13 years, Kirtland has embedded itself as one of the premier high school football programs in the state, so their celebration of winning a state semifinal game was nothing short of commonplace, but they understood they had been in a battle with the Pirates, with the score locked at 0-0 at halftime.

As the Pirates’ players and coaching staff gathered on the field following the loss, amid a sea of fans who surrounded them, the Pirates’ coaches took turns assuaging the pain of defeat by reminding the players of how they got there and of the bar they moved up higher for future programs to pursue.

The coaching staff poured out its praises on the group of young men who set a new school benchmark by reaching the state Final Four for the first time in school history after several near misses.

“I want these kids to walk off this field proud of what they’ve accomplished,” head coach Jason Wallick said. “This is something to cherish, and our seniors won’t ever have this opportunity again at the high school level.”

Wallick said only one team gets to walk off the field in each division as a champion each year, and while the Pirates fell shy of their ultimate goal, they can cherish the trek to get there. Wallick said they are all champions in his mind and heart because of the work and effort they gave to the program.

“We’ve taken great strides as a program,” coach Wes Hostetler said. “Seniors, you’ve set such an example for the young guys. There should be no excuses from here out for what these seniors have done and how hard they’ve worked. Use their example every day to get better. There’s only strides forward because of what the seniors have done for us. What this team has accomplished will never die, on the field and in people’s hearts.”

“Seniors, you did things the right way, and you never wavered from day one,” coach Dave Shutt said.

One by one the coaching staff members heaped praises on the players for their dedication and willingness to work, not as individuals but as one cohesive unit.

While the anguish of a season-ending loss stung deeply, the words the coaching staff expressed to the players showed how much they love and respect this group.

“It’s a special group of kids,” coach Wallick said. “They are exceptional players and even more exceptional young men.”

As for the game, both head coaches turned to their staunch defenses to rule the game and put their respective teams in position to win. That led to neither team being able to burst through for a score in the first half, the highlight being when Clayton Downs burst through the line to block a short field goal attempt in the first half.

However, a costly turnover gave Kirtland a short field to open the second half, leading to a short drive to pay-dirt. Kirtland’s other fourth-quarter touchdown came when the Pirates were in a must-score situation late in the game, when Garaway failed to complete a fourth-down play and again gave Kirtland a short field.

From there Kirtland’s defense proved to be state champion caliber, shutting down Garaway’s decorated passing game by employing a frantic pass rush on quarterback Brady Geibel.

“Our kids don’t back down from anybody, and we were ready,” coach Wallick said. “We were right where we wanted to be at the half. But they are a premier program for a reason. They are the standard, and I told the kids that they are what we are striving to be.”

Kirtland’s ability to keep coming at an opponent with relentless drive and wear teams down mentally as much as physically played itself out in the second half when Kirtland imposed its will on the Pirates.

Wallick said his kids never stopped playing hard, never stopped believing, and that leaves them with a lot to be proud of as the state’s top two Div. VI teams went at it.

This group of seniors leaves the program having won 45 games — even amid one COVID-shortened season — setting yet another standard for teams to chase.

“It’s been a brotherhood all season,” senior Wyatt Wallick said. “As you can see, it’s emotional, with everyone going around hugging and crying. That’s because of how close-knit this team is. It’s special for us that we got to this point. We all wish we could have gone one game farther, but once we look back, it’s going to be something special.”

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