IRONTON — The final test for Trevon Pendleton and the Ironton Fighting Tigers to win a state championship is the team ranked by the Associated Press as No. 1 at the end of the regular season.
The Kirtland Hornets finished 10-0 and earned 17 of the AP’s 18 No. 1 votes in its next to last poll of the year with one vote going to the Ohio Valley Conference champion Fighting Tigers. Yet, Ironton finished fifth overall in that poll.
Now the two teams prepare for the final practices this week ahead of Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff of the Ohio High School Athletic Association Division V Championship Game at Canton’s Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
Kirtland advanced to Saturday’s championship via playoff wins over Magnolia Sandy Valley 38-24 before moving on to a 38-7 win over Canfield South Range in the regional semifinals. The Hornets then captured the Region 17 title with a 32-7 win over Akron Manchester before winning in the state semifinals over Oak Harbor 28-14.
For Kirtland, under the direction of head coach Tiger LaVerde, it won the Division VI state championship in 2018 but graduated much of its size and skill players from that squad. Yet its 14-0 trying to make it back-to-back undefeated state championship seasons for the first time in school history.
“Depending on the package we run we can have between two and three guys on the field who are back from last year,” LaVerde told the media during a coach’s conference call Monday. “We graduated a lot of our size. I didn’t know what to expect coming into this year.
“From the start of the season you really couldn’t ask them to do any more than they did. We knew we’d have tough kids who would play at a very high level.”
Much of that toughness came from a junior varsity squad that cut its teeth on some of Ohio’s heavyweight programs such as Avon, Cleveland St. Ignatius and Massillon.
“Our junior varsity is 100 percent of the reason we’re still playing,” LaVerde said. “We play great teams that are well coached in the area.”
That’s allowed the Hornets who have been bitten by the injury bug to call on underclassmen to fill holes left by players that LaVerde otherwise counted being around to lead his team through this season.
Pendleton, head coach of the Fighting Tigers, got his first chance to view film on Kirtland Tuesday before Ironton took the field for practice.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a pretty new team when you’re 15 weeks into it,” the second-year coach said. “You’ve been battle-tested, you’ve seen pretty much about everything.”
Kirtland has won four state championships, all since 2011 but is trying for its first title in Division V. Ironton is trying for its first Division V championship as well after winning Class AA in 1979 and Division III in 1989.