Rebels relish new challenge

COLUMBIANA-It was right there, emblazoned for all to see across the big-screen television in the Crestview football locker room. Manchester 19, Ursuline 16.

Exiting the room earlier this week, one could not help but notice that frozen camera shot of the scoreboard from Akron Manchester’s Jim France Field. It was a reminder-intentional or not-of the team blocking the Rebels path to an elusive regional championship and also of the team that has been cleared out of the way.

Saturday at 7 p.m. the second-seeded Rebels (11-1) will take the field at Minerva’s Hines Stadium for the program’s second regional final in three years, and second in school history.

To the surprise of many, the squad awaiting them will not be regional powerhouse Ursuline, winners of three state championships in the last six years and the team perceived by many to be Crestview’s toughest obstacle in Div. V, Region 15. Instead the opponent will be the Panthers from Akron Manchester, who upset the Irish on a last-second field goal in round one.

“It was a little bit of a relief when Ursuline lost,” Crestview senior defensive end John Davis said. “But we knew that if Manchester beat them then they were obviously really good. We know we’ll have our hands full on Saturday.”

Although Manchester (10-2) ran away with the top seed in Div. V, Region 15, many expected the eighth-seeded Irish-who played a schedule that would crush most Div. V schools-to brush aside the Panthers on their way to another regional title. However, Crestview coach Paul Cusick was not among the surprised.

“It was not a shock to me,” Cusick said. “Manchester has a great tradition. Year after year when you looked at Div. IV they were always in the playoffs. With them dropping to Div. V we knew they would be a big factor this year. Without question they earned that top seed and we felt we would eventually have to go through them.”

Getting through the region has proved to be a tough hurdle for the Crestview program. Every season from 2008-2012 the Rebels romped through the Inter-Tri County League upper tier and entered the playoffs as one of the top four seeds in Div. V Region 17. However, no matter how strong a team Cusick had, he always found an even more powerful one blocking the way.

In 2008, the Rebels were blown out in the regional semifinal by Kirtland-then an ascending state power. The next year, it was Ursuline pulling away from Crestview in the second round on their way to the state championship. In 2011 and 2012, the Rebels featured arguably the two strongest teams in school history only to be splintered again both times by Kirtland, once in the regional final, once in the second round. The Hornets cruised to the 2011 state title and were runners-up last season. Either Ursuline or Kirtland has appeared in the Div. V state championship game every year since 2007.

“Northeast Ohio features a ton of good football,” Cusick said. “Once you get into the playoffs you are going to face a lot of quality teams and as you go through the rounds each team gets better. It’s been special to have the opportunity to advance and play those schools, but we haven’t yet gotten out of the region. Obviously it’s a big step we still have to take.”

This year, the Rebels were presented with a drastically altered landscape. Over the summer, the OHSAA announced the football playoffs would be expanding to seven divisions, causing a good deal of re-shuffling. Most of the schools in this year’s new Div. V Region 15-including Manchester-were Div. IV teams a season ago. Crestview was one of only six teams from last year’s Region 17 to remain, the rest dropped to Div. VI. Most notable among those dropping down was Kirtland, which will be playing for its third straight regional title against Mogadore on Friday.

“Kirtland and Ursuline were really strong teams that we had to contend with year after year,” senior left tackle Clint Linhart said. “Coming into this year knowing we would be going against some different teams was nice.”

“I thought that whatever region Kirtland wound up in they would be the favorite, right now they are just a special program” Cusick said. “In a way you want to see how you measure up against them, but at the same time we knew there were still going to be plenty of good teams to worry about.”

One of those teams was Ursuline, which remained in Div. V for the seventh straight year. The debate over a parochial school with a loaded schedule competing against small public schools in the playoffs has been a hot conversation topic for years. As they have made their playoff runs, it is also an issue the Rebels haven’t wasted much energy worrying about.

“Ursuline is always a great team, but we’ve never really thought about them being in our region the last few years,” senior quarterback Collin Gilbert said. “You have to play whoever comes up. If we had to play them we would be ready.”

That being said, the Rebels are also certainly not sad to be facing someone else.

“It was kind of nice to see Manchester knock them [Ursuline] off,” Gilbert said. “At the same time that just shows you how good they are. We will have to come prepared and be ready to play our best game of the season.”