A resilient Nordonia football team prevailed 35-7 in a home win last Friday in the season finale against arch-rival Twinsburg, a club that was fighting for its playoff life.
The Knights seized on the opportunity to host the first state playoff game since the state runner-up 2014 squad.
Nordonia (9-1, 6-1 in the Suburban League National Conference) had purpose in the season finale as the Knights were playing for a home field state playoff game in Division II, which they got with the win.
"This was fun to be a part of — especially for our seniors on Senior Night," said head coach Jeff Fox.
Twinsburg (5-5, 4-3) had a chance at a playoff berth in that same region 5 as Nordonia, but finished 10th after the loss. The top eight teams advance to the playoffs.
Nordonia last reached the state playoffs in 2015 and will open with a home contest as the third seed against sixth-seeded Painesville Riverside Firday at 7 p.m.
Early on, Twinsburg perfectly executed its game plan of controlling the clock and moving the ball.
In fact, the Tigers had seven first downs in the first quarter to zero for Nordonia, which was held to a season-low six yards in period — primarily because Twinsburg was moving the ball.
However, Twinsburg didn't finish as drives stalled and didn't produce any points.
From that point forward, Twinsburg mustered only four more first downs as the Knights piled up 20 first downs behind a 28-point explosion in the second and third quarters.
"A big part of our plan was to feature ball control and limit Nordonia's time on the field and their touches," said Tiger head coach Mike Bell. "We did a good job, but we were not able to finish drives and it caught up to us."
"Nordonia has an explosive offense and our defense did a great job early on."
Twinsburg's first drive went 48 yards and into Knight territory, but on fourth down-and-5, punter Ethan Cribley faced a high snap and against a big rush, tried to run the ball and netted only one yard.
After a Knight punt, the Tigers had another long drive — this time, 15 plays — and reached the Knight 28, but stalled on downs again.
"We came to play in a big game and it was special," said Fox.
"Twinsburg is well-coached and they did what they wanted to controlling the ball with a good line and two good backs, but our defense got some big stops, and then our offense got going."
Nordonia came back with a 70-yard scoring drive, keyed by a nine-yard quarterback draw on third down by quarterback Robby Levak, who also had a big 30-yard roll-out pass on the very next play to sophomore wide receiver Joel Jones.
On third-and-11, Levak rolled to his left and tossed a 14-yard TD strike just over the pylon to senior wide out Julius Jones. It was 7-0 at the 9:03 mark of the second period.
After the Tiger defense forced another punt, sophomore tailback Marvahun Johnson raced 80 yards for a TD and the extra point kick tied the game 7-7 with 4:22 left in the half.
Johnson, who finished with 111 yards on 13 carries, got the handoff around left end and outraced all of the Knight defenders down the sideline.
The Knights responded with a 62-yard scoring drive as Levak scored on a five-yard run to make it 14-7 with 30 seconds left in the first half. Levak used a nice play fake and ran around to the pylon for the TD.
Twinsburg was doing just fine in the light rain — except that Nordonia's offense struck on its first drive of the second half.
Nordonia running game hurt the Tigers on the 80-yard scoring drive, culminated by a 27-yard TD strike from Levak to a wide-open Joel Jones.
The TD was set up by a Sal Perrine 11-yard run the play before on 4th-and-2 as Levak had a perfectly timed pitch to the left on an option play. It was 21-7.
Opportunistic Dominick Glenn pounced on a punt that was touched by a Knight to give Twinsburg the ball at the Nordonia 45.
The Tigers moved to the Knight 14, but on fourth-and-5, senior QB Adam Van de Motter was sacked behind the line by Nordonia senior lineman Dylan Schneider and junior linebacker Ryan Short.
Levak struck again as he connected on a 52-yard TD pass to Julius Jones on the next drive to push the lead to 28-7 with 2:49 left in the third period.
Twinsburg could never recover. Nordonia has one of the area's most improved defenses and held the Tigers to 223 total yards and 11 first downs.
A host of athletes paced the Knights’ defense. Senior safety Brendan O'Donnell continues to be a force along with senior ends Aidan Bell and Harry Harris.
Junior defensive back Jason Tuttle had two interceptions in the victory for the Knight defense.
"It is great to host a state playoff game and it's great for the entire community and the school," explained Fox. "The community has been so supportive — everyone has been."
Through the air against Twinsburg, Levak hit 10-of-14 passes for 159 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Recently breaking several of David Murray's passing records, Levak also ran for 88 yards on 14 rushes and one TD.
Sophomore running back Sal Perrine continues to shine and make strides as he had 121 yards on 16 attempts and had a 7-yard TD run.
"Our running game did well behind our line play, which has been good," stressed Fox.
Nordonia rotates six players on the offensive front with Schneider, 6-6, 340-pound junior Collin McConahy, plus seniors Ryan Lee, Noah Hensley, Carl Schaub, and Jalen Elston.
Julius Jones had four catches for 80 yards and two TD's while Joel Jones had two receptions for 57 yards and a score.
Senior Nyles Beverly added 33 yards rushing on six totes while bullish junior back Shannon Reese-Jones had 22 yards on eight attempts.
Nordonia now looks forward to Riverside (8-2), who last competed in the playoffs in 2013 and are 0-6 all-time in the state playoffs.
Pacing Riverside on offense is dual-threat QB Andrew Keller, who passed for 1,164 yards, 11 TD's and three interceptions with 646 yards and 11 TD's rushing.
Danny Smith is a versatile athlete who can catch or run the ball. He has 22 catches and three TD's, plus 531 rushing yards and five TD's.
"Keller and Smith are big weapons in a spread offense that has been good," said Fox.
Joe Robinson (6-0, 200) is an RB-LB, who has 670 yards rushing and five TD's.
"Coach [Dave Bors] was the architect of those great Chardon teams as the defensive coordinator, so this will be a tough game, but we are excited," said Fox, of the Riverside head coach.