April 23, 2014

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High school football Week 4: Falcons are flying again

The last time Firelands was 3-0, the Cleveland Browns were a perennial playoff team, “Driving Miss Daisy” won the Oscar for Best Picture and the late Johnny Carson was the host of The Tonight Show.

Firelands quarterback Kyle Smith, left, and running back Nick Deichler have the Falcons off to their first 3-0 start in over two decades. (CT photo by Chuck Humel.)

Firelands quarterback Kyle Smith, left, and running back Nick Deichler have the Falcons off to their first 3-0 start in over two decades. (CT photo by Chuck Humel.)

It’s been 22 years since Falcons fans enjoyed such a perfect start to their football season. That 1989 team went on to finish 9-1, losing its season finale to Wellington 7-0 to share the Lorain County Conference championship with Clearview.

Since, the Falcons have experienced more dismay than joy. It’s been 14 years since Firelands has managed more than three victories in a season — the 1997 team went 6-4.

Just six years ago, the Falcons struggled to field a team after the number of players plummeted to 17 at one point during the season.

Now the Falcons are in the Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division with new coach Mike Passerrello leading the charge. They appear to be more stable than ever.

So it’s no wonder Firelands fans have embraced this team as it enters PAC play tonight with a crossover home game against former West Shore Conference rival Fairview.

“We hope that the community is excited, especially after our third win over our big rival, Vermilion,” Passerrello said. “We had a packed house at our game with Vermilion last weekend, so you can sense the excitement. And we hope to continue the excitement.”

Senior quarterback Kyle Smith, who led the way as this year’s team became the first to beat Vermilion in back-to-back years since his father, Dave, was the quarterback in 1985-86, couldn’t believe the atmosphere at Friday’s game.

“The community talks a lot about us and you can tell they’re excited about this year,” Smith said. “That game with Vermilion was amazing. I’ve never seen that many people at a Firelands game before. They were parking people back in the field where we practice. There were so many people there, and we just fed off of them.

“Everyone tells us to keep it up, keep the hard work going and good job.”

Passerrello has been trying to temper his own players’ excitement about their historic start.

“We just try to take it one step at a time and one game at a time,” he said. “We have a 3-0 start, but we’re not satisfied. The players are doing a nice job in practice to stay focused and that shows me that they’re not satisfied, as we coaches aren’t. There’s a lot more work to be done.”

Passerrello joined Todd Pooch’s coaching staff last season as the defensive coordinator, but became the head coach just hours before the third game of the season when Pooch was placed on administrative leave and later resigned. He helped guide the Falcons through the rough waters before beating the Sailors 28-21 on the road in the season finale.

Having the interim tag lifted following the season, Passerrello focused on changing the culture surrounding the program, starting with the offseason weightlifting program.

“Just going into the offseason, we were able to establish our expectations and goals for what we wanted to do and stressed our commitment to turning this thing around,” Passerrello said. “We established our weight program in the winter and spring, and that commitment to getting stronger is starting to carry over to Friday nights.

“It helps that we have a few playmakers in Kyle and (senior) Nick Deichler. Cody Northeim is doing a fine job at receiver and tight end Joe Kudela is doing a nice job for us. And our offensive line is jelling and doing a nice job, opening up some holes, so that helps us do a nice job on offense.”

Smith, who has landed on the Division III All-Ohio lists the past two seasons, is proving to be a dangerous threat that can beat teams with his arm and his legs.

Last week against Vermilion, his 74-yard touchdown run served as the back-breaking score and keyed a game-high 160-yard rushing performance. He had 137 rushing yards and a 61-yard touchdown run in a 35-14 win over Lutheran West, and had 100 more yards in a 39-21 win over New London.

Smith passed for 64 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 and 119 yards and a touchdown in Week 3. He has not thrown an interception this season.

“Kyle’s a great option to have,” Passerrello said. “He’s someone that can make things happen with his feet if something breaks down. He’s great at protecting the football and he’s definitely a nice option to have and utilize.”

Smith was quick to give credit to his offensive line.

“We win everything in the trenches,” he said. “The linemen are the big men who have stepped up this year and they’re winning everything up front and that’s why we’re winning games right now.

“Andy Toms at center, Nick Donafrio and Chuckie Sees at right guard, Jared Underwood at right tackle, Travis Richardson at left guard and Joe Sosinski at left tackle — they’re doing a heck of a job opening holes and dominating the line of scrimmage for us.”

Deichler, Smith’s best friend since they were in grade school and also a two-time All-Ohio honoree, is piling up his own stats. He rushed 15 times for 162 yards and three touchdowns, including one for 70 and another for 67 yards in Week 1, then had 13 carries for 140 yards and three more TDs last week, including a 41-yarder.

“Nick is just a flat-out amazing running back,” Smith said. “Some of the runs he’s had this year are unbelievable. He can break seven or eight tackles and go 80 yards just like that.

“It’s hard for teams to key on both of us because Nick’s so good and they can’t key on me, either. To have someone behind me who’s better than me and is an amazing running back is tremendous.”

The Falcons aren’t just an offensive power. Passerrello, who calls the defensive plays, is proud of how his unit has factored into the undefeated start.

Against Vermilion, the Sailors had the ball four times inside the Firelands 15-yard line, but the Falcons kept them out of the end zone every time. Linebacker Zach Hofecker and defensive linemen Sam Hayes and Joe DeWitt have been the early standouts.

“They’re doing a great job of playing team defense,” he said. “They have a little bit of an attitude with them on that side of the ball. They play hard defense and they swarm to the ball. Everyone’s doing their job and taking care of their responsibilities. That allowed us to get those goal-line stands in last week’s game.

“It allows us to put pressure on defense when we’ve got a quarterback who can throw it and run it. It gives us a lot more options and allows us to be more aggressive in our play-calling on both sides of the ball.”

Numbers are solid again, too. There are 51 players this season and the freshmen and middle school programs are stronger than ever, Passarrello said.

Smith admitted going 3-0 and beating Vermilion in back-to-back seasons were early goals for the team. Now, he said, he knows there’s more work to do.

“We’re taking one game and one step at a time,” he said. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves because we could easily lose the next seven games. We want to keep working hard and try to win every game.

“Another goal is to win the PAC and that’s one that we’re really working hard at right now. We believe the PAC is a great fit for us, and we’re excited to renew some old (Lorain County Conference) rivalries with Wellington, Keystone, Oberlin, Brookside and Clearview.”

Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or dangilles73@gmail.com.