MASSILLON — New Bremen completed a transition from a Midwest Athletic Conference afterthought to one of the state’s small-school heavyweights Friday.
The Cardinals dominated Warren John F. Kennedy 31-0 in the Division VII state championship game at Massillon Washington’s Paul Brown Tiger Stadium to earn the program’s first state football title.
It has been a slow buildup for the program, which was winless in 2013 and 2014 and finished 1-9 in coach Chris Schmidt’s first year.
“Part of me wants to say it’s unbelievable looking back where we were, but at the same time, I don’t like saying that, because the right people in the right places believed it could happen, starting with our administration on down.
“It’s not been easy. We’ve had to take baby steps at times, but the kids are the ones that propelled the program and decided they wanted to change things up. These kids have done that, but even the kids prior to this helped lay the foundation.”
The victory caps off a storybook season for the Cardinals in a year that’s been anything but. Uncertainty hung over football and all fall sports throughout the summer after spring sports were canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions.
There was a last-second wrench thrown into Friday’s game as well, as the OHSAA announced Thursday the games wouldn’t be held at Fortress Obetz in suburban Columbus as originally scheduled but were moving to Massillon.
“It was an unbelievable year; it’s a blessing,” Schmidt said. “We didn’t know even towards the end of July if we would have a season and how long it would last. To make it through all that — the kids just did a great job of controlling what we could control. Maybe that helped us as we got into the playoffs as we had to play all these great teams one step at a time.”
The Cardinals finished 2-8 in 2016 and 3-7 in 2017. They finished 6-4 in 2018, which was the program’s first winning season since 2004. They finished 9-4 last year and advanced to a regional final, in which they lost to Midwest Athletic Conference rival Marion Local.
The Cardinals had seven starters back on offense from last season and five on defense. They lost to Marion Local 21-13 in Week 2 and dropped to 2-2 two weeks later after a 24-7 loss to Coldwater, which will face New Middletown Springfield in the D-VI state championship game Sunday.
“Those were gut-checks early in the year, and Coldwater was probably the turning point in many ways,” Schmidt said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, what do we need to do here, what do players need to do, what do coaches need to do?’”
New Bremen finished the year by rattling off eight consecutive wins, including a 24-17 victory at Marion Local in a regional final Nov. 6. It was the first time since 2006 the Flyers lost a playoff game before a state championship contest.
The Cardinals (10-2) battled back to edge Lima Central Catholic 28-26 in a semifinal last Friday to set up Friday’s state championship contest.
After the big playoff wins, Schmidt said he wasn’t too nervous about the team playing in its first state title game.
“Coming to a place like this, and it’s a beautiful place, it’s a little worrisome, because you wonder how they’ll manage it all,” Schmidt said. “But I thought when we got into warmups they were locked in and ready to play, so I didn’t really worry about it. … They were calm as the game started to move.”
New Bremen became the ninth member of the MAC to earn a football state championship with the win. MAC teams have won 36 football state championships and 136 state championships across all sports.
“That’s the benefit of playing in our league; you’re going to play great competition,” Schmidt said. “I was thinking the other day that it’s kind of like a family where the youngest child is trying to keep up with the older siblings. In some ways, I think that’s kind of us.
“We’ve been trying to keep up for so long and get up to the level of those programs, and this year we were able to do it.”
Both teams started slow and neither scored in the first quarter. The Cardinals scored on their second possession of the game. Hunter Schaefer scored on a 39-yard touchdown with 8:19 left in the second quarter, and Owen Gabel kicked an extra point to give the squad a 7-0 lead.
JFK’s Nick Fordeley intercepted a pass in the end zone to end the Cardinals’ third drive, but they quickly got going in the second half.
Hays capped off an eight-play, 66-yard drive to start the third quarter with a 1-yard touchdown run to increase the squad’s lead to 14-0.
Wyatt Dicke recovered a fumble three plays into New Bremen’s next drive at JFK’s 11-yard line, and Gabel kicked a 20-yard field goal with 6:02 left in the third to increase the lead to 17-0.
After getting two first downs on its next drive, Warren JFK was forced to punt, and David Homan returned the punt 45 yards for a touchdown with 1:44 left to push the lead to 24-0.
After a three-and-out by JFK, New Bremen quickly drove down and scored early in the third quarter. Hays threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Dan Homan with 10:49 left.
The Cardinals had 247 yards of offense while Warren JFK managed 133. The run-heavy Eagles had 61 rushing yards on 33 attempts.
“That was huge,” Schmidt said of containing Warren JFK’s running attack. “It was tough to tackle the quarterback early on, and I was worried about their running back. … But once we started to clamp down as the game wore on, that made a difference.”
Hays completed 5-of-6 passes for 81 yards and ran for 60 yards on 18 carries. Schaefer finished with 101 rushing yards.
“We really didn’t throw the ball much with the wind, but it seemed like we were controlling the line of scrimmage,” Schmidt said. “We just kept trying to take advantage of that and wear them down a bit. The competition we see all year long, if you’re not physical up front, it will make for long games and a long season.”
Linebacker Ben Blickle led New Bremen with eight tackles while Dan Homan had 5.5 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
The squad will lose 17 seniors to graduation, including Hays, Dicke, Dan Homan and Blickle.
It is the third state title in four years for the school. New Bremen’s volleyball team won the school’s first state championship in 2017 and followed with another in 2019. The squad finished as state runner-up in 2018 and last weekend after a 3-1 loss to Tiffin Calvert in the D-IV state final.
Only 1,500 fans were allowed to attend Friday’s game (which was also televised) due to crowd size restrictions in place by order of the Ohio Department of Health. Fans were also supposed to socially distance in the grandstands — and initially did not.
The governor’s office noticed. Ohio High School Athletic Association officials were contacted by state governmental officials, and the public address announcer read a statement urging fans to spread out more in the 16,000-seat grandstands.
They didn’t listen until New Bremen athletic director Chad Wells addressed his school’s fans from the field during halftime and urged them to spread out.
Warren JFK, which beat Minster in the 20116 D-VII title, finishes this season with a 9-3 record.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.