Sometimes the more travelled route is the most satisfying. The Nordonia football program continues to raise eyebrows as the Knights found a way to win 35-26 in the home opener against Mayfield.
The Knights moved to 3-0 this season against three foes that made the state playoffs a year ago.
Using strong defense, special teams and a potent ground attack, Nordonia secured the big non-league win at Boliantz Stadium against a Wildcat unit that made the Division II state playoffs in 2017.
"It's really exciting to see these kids fight and find another way to win this year against another quality team," said Nordonia coach Jeff Fox.
"I was very pleased because at times, the game was sloppy, but in a way that was good because we found a way too win," said Fox. "It was a team effort. The guys responded and we found a way to win."
With wins already over Bedford and Woodridge, Nordonia is 3-0 in the non-league with wins over three playoff clubs.
In fact, the Knights' next three foes — league rivals Wadsworth, Hudson and Stow-Munroe Falls, also made the state playoffs in 2017.
That means Nordonia's first six foes are playoff clubs, including defending Suburban League National Conference champion Wadsworth. The Knights' open conference play Friday at Art Wright Stadium vs. Wadsworth at 7 p.m.
Wadsworth and Nordonia are the only National Conference teams that got off to a 3-0 start.
Improved defense by Nordonia has been the biggest key early on, but adjustments on offense, and steady special teams play has been tremendous.
"The defense has been very good and I think there are a lot of reasons for that," noted Fox.
Fox alluded to the team's experience from last year and even two years ago, plus the team's defensive changes — both mental and from a scheme standpoint.
Two of Mayfield's touchdowns were not against the Knights' defense — a 16-yard punt return TD by Clay Cunningham to make it 7-0 and a late 48-yard fumble return score. The two other Wildcat TDs came on big pass plays.
"Those return scores are mistakes we want to correct, but our young men bounced back and that was nice to see," said Fox.
"I have tried to tell everybody that our defense was getting better back in the second half of last year; it started back then," he explained. "We could see the strides on film and our defense was getting better."
Fox had plenty of praise for veteran Brendan O'Donnell and the secondary with a productive linebacking group of seniors Collin Flynn, Aidan Bell, and Vince Varner.
Mayfield was held to just 12 first downs and a sub-par 3.1-yard average running the ball.
Senior safety Jacob Kraus and O'Donnell each had interceptions for the Knights. Fox has also been pleased with senior Nyles Beverly, at cornerback.
On offense, Nordonia ran for 354 yards and amassed 25 first downs, including 15 first downs on the ground. Nordonia had 545 total yards and were 7-of-14 on third down conversions.
"Our offense has been a little inconsistent this year, but we have shown flashes," said Fox.
"The run game against Mayfield was great — our line played so well and all of our backs were productive as well," explained the coach. "The line has improved so much."
Making a big impact on the front wall have been senior Dylan Schneider, junior Collin McConahy, senior Carl Schaub, senior Noah Hensley, and senior Ryan Lee.
Senior quarterback Robby Levak ran for 134 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns, but he had plenty of help on the ground.
Beverly had a big game as he had 14 totes for 115 yards rushing and one TD along with two catches for 15 yards.
Sophomore running back Sal Perrine continues to improve as he had 11 carries for 96 yards and a TD, plus he caught two passes for 47 yards.
After Mayfield scored on the punt return, Nordonia responded to tie the game 7-7 when Beverly had a 24-yard TD run with 2:32 left in the opening quarter.
Perrine had a nice 43-yard scamper to set up the score and at the 6:51 mark of the second stanza, scored his own TD on a one-yard plunge.
The score came off a 10-play, 80-yard drive and was set up on a key 18-yard first down pass from Levak to senior wide out Julius Jones on fourth down-and-10. It was 14-7.
Nordonia extended the lead to 21-7 with 1:31 left in the first half when Levak raced to a 45-yard TD run to cap another 80-yard drive.
Once again, Jones and Levak hooked up on a crucial 3rd-and-10 play for 25 yards and a first down. Jones had eight catches for 99 yards in the game.
"Julius has done a great job and has been the recipient of some crucial pass plays," said Fox. "Jordan Jones and Joel Jones have also been reliable."
Cody Pestino and O'Donnell are other experienced senior receivers, along with Jordan Jones. Joel Jones is a promising sophomore.
Mayfield struck back quickly with just 24 seconds left in the first half when gifted sophomore quarterback Michael Huss hit dangerous wide out Joey Isabella on a 70-yard TD pass to cut into the momentum and the lead, at 21-14.
Nordonia used solid ball control to score on an 8-yard run by Levak to push the lead to 28-14 in the third quarter after an 11-play, 66-yard drive.
Huss responded again as Mayfield scored on a 52-yard pass from Huss to Ben Sherlock. The extra point was no good with 5:40 left in the third period and Nordonia up 28-20.
The Knight defense held and Nordonia scored off of the Kraus interception. Junior back Nick Peters ran in from 1-yard out and it was 35-20 when senior Evan Wiehe booted his fifth straight PAT.
Mayfield took advantage of a Knight fumble on a sack as outside linebacker Tyler Tiggs had a 48-yard fumble return score with 6:36 left in the game. The PAT failed and it was 35-26 as the Nordonia defense held on.
Wiehe also had three touchbacks on kickoffs. Levak was 17-30 passing for 191 yards and one interception.