The Crestview football team will step onto the field at Hines Stadium in Minerva Saturday night and into the rarified air of a regional final.
The second-seeded Rebels (11-1) will try and take a step the program has never taken before when they face top-seeded Akron Manchester (10-2) at 7 p.m. It is the second time in school history that Crestview will play for a regional title. The 2011 Rebels lost to eventual state champion Kirtland 35-7.
"Anytime you make the playoffs it is fun, but once you make a run and get to this stage it is really special," Crestview quarterback Collin Gilbert said. "We've been doing this all for coach (Paul) Cusick. He deserves to make it past this round."
To make it there, the Rebels will have to get past a Manchester squad that proved its mettle with an 8-2 regular season against a tough schedule and a 19-16 first round upset over Ursuline. The Panthers ran away with the top seed in Div. V, Region 15, finishing over six full points ahead of the Rebels. They avenged a regular season loss to conference rival Navarre Fairless by stomping the Falcons 35-7 in the second round.
"They went out and earned it," Crestview coach Paul Cusick said. "Their coach has been there for a long time and does a great job year after year of getting them ready. If we want to advance we are going to have to step up and play our best game."
Manchester coach Jim France is in his 42nd season as the school's head coach. He has led them to 21 playoff appearances-all since 1989-and has compiled a 362-97-3 record. This is the Panthers seventh regional final, with the lone title coming in 1997, when they were also the state runner-up. Most of those appearances came as a member of Div. IV.
"When the new divisions came out over the summer they were one team we really looked at as being a contender," Cusick said. "We knew they were in the playoffs almost every year in division four. They have a great tradition."
Offensively, France built the program's reputation on a tough, no-frills attack that relied heavily on the power running game. As football has evolved over the years, the Panthers have incorporated more spread formations into their playbook, but the emphasis is the same. When push comes to shove, Manchester will try and punish the opposition.
"They are pretty much old-school," Cusick said. "They will run the spread, but their bread-and-butter is two tight ends and a full-house backfield. We do some similar things in short yardage situations, but they do it quite a bit. They have a bunch of big physical backs and they are good at pounding the ball."
The Panthers may be without their leading rusher Austin Kilein. The senior ran for 883 yards and nine touchdowns but left during the first half against Ursuline with an apparent knee injury. Klein also missed last week's win over Fairless and it is not certain if he will play this week.
In his place, junior Mason Hayes has performed admirably, rushing for 147 yards against Ursuline, including 41 on the game-winning drive. Hayes ran for 659 yards and 20 touchdowns in the regular season, while John Beavers chipped in 521 yards. Junior quarterback Pavin Parks completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,486 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Paving the way is 250-pound tackle Jacob Hanzel, a first-team All-Northeast Inland District selection.
"They remind me of some of the Columbiana teams we've played in the past that had some big linemen and pounded away but could also do some spread," Cusick said. "What impressed me most was how patient they are on offense. They are content to take four or five yards a play. They don't get fazed if they aren't ripping off 30 yard runs."
On defense, the Panthers have plenty of athletes on the line and at linebacker. leading the way is senior linebacker John Beavers who was also a first-team All Inland District selection. Beavers led the team with 91 tackles. he was helped by junior linebacker Logan Harvey who racked up 80 tackles and led the team with nine sacks.
"They are very quick up front on defense and really strong as a whole," Crestview left tackle Clint Linhart said. "I think it will be our biggest test of the season as an offensive line."
The Rebels showed poise in weathering their second round challenge from Gates Mills Gilmour Academy and know they will need it in even greater supply to reach the state semifinals for the first time.
"I think we grew up a lot as a team last week," Crestview defensive end John Davis said. "Everyone counted on each other, trusted each other and did their jobs. It has to be the same for this week, the games get tougher as you advance."
Akron Manchester's leading rusher Austin Klein had a game-high 15 points and eight rebounds in a 44-41 win over Lisbon in Division III sectional final at Salem High School on March 1.
Manchester lost to Louisville St. Thomas Aquinas in the district title game.
France's lone losing season as a head coach came in 1970, his lone season at Coventry High School. He has had two 5-5 seasons at Manchester. He stepped down for one season-1985-when he took over as the school's principal. The team went 2-8 and he was asked back the next season. He has performed both jobs ever since.
Talk about continuity, three of France's assistant coaches-including his son Jason-have been on the staff for over 20 years. 13 of his players had fathers who played for France.