HENRIETTA TWP. — Thirty-eight years is a long time to wait for another taste of perfection.
But tonight, if Firelands wins at Brookside it will finish the regular season unblemished for the first time since 1973.
Vern Long was the coach when Firelands last rolled through 10 opponents to win the now defunct Inland Conference and finish as the fourth-best Class AA team in the state, according to the United Press International (UPI) final poll as selected by the coaches around the state.
Firelands did not qualify for the postseason in 1973, just the second year of the state playoff system. Only two teams per region qualified and the Falcons were left to ponder what might have been.
“We never got that chance,” said Long, who ironically will be on the other sideline tonight as Brookside’s defensive coordinator. “It was a great time. There was a lot of enthusiasm in the community. When we beat Vermilion to close out the year, it was the 100th victory in school history. It was very emotional. I remember the players not wanting it to end. They didn’t want to take their uniforms off after that last game.”
Unlike the ’73 team, this year’s group came out of nowhere to win nine straight games. The 1988 Falcons under Jon Altonen also opened the season 9-0 only to lose the final game to Wellington on a trick play. This year’s team hopes to escape the upset bug.
“It’s a great way for our seniors at Brookside to finish out their careers,” Long said of tonight’s game. “You always hope for the upset.”
Long, who left Firelands to coach at Westlake and later Elyria Catholic, was called out of retirement this year to assist Dick Kerschbaum. When Kerschbaum, Brookside’s athletic director, stepped aside as coach just before the start of the season due to health concerns, Tom Lesiecki, another veteran coach, took the reins.
Long fondly remembers his days with the Falcons and still has a lot of respect for the Firelands community.
“It’s a great group of people,” Long said. “We had a great feeling of accomplishment. When we beat Amherst the second game of the year, it was first time we had ever beaten them. That’s when we felt we could go undefeated.”
Amherst handed Firelands its only loss the previous year and Long and his team resolved to not let it happen again. Firelands jumped ahead 24-0 only to have Amherst score twice to slice the lead to 24-16 before the Falcons put the game away with another touchdown.
This year, the Falcons switched to the Patriot Athletic Conference after not being above .500 since 1997 when they were 6-4. In fact, they haven’t won more than three games in a season for the past decade.
“That’s a big difference,” said Steve Holovacs, Firelands’ two-time All-Ohio tailback from that era. “We knew how to win. We were 5-5 my freshman year and 9-1 when I was a sophomore. We were loaded. We had so much talent. We expected to win. This year’s team had to learn to do that. I think the Buckeye game proved they had stepped beyond that when they came from behind.”
Holovacs, then a junior, got a lot of the glory surrounding that team, leading the county in rushing and scoring with over 1,800 yards and 178 points. But there were talented players all over the field for Firelands, which outscored the opposition 437-61. This year’s team has put up big offensive numbers as well, outscoring opponents 311-128.
“We ran this one play where (Ron) Pycraft (the quarterback) would fake to (fullback) Larry Matus and pitch out to me,” Holovacs said. “I scored a lot of touchdowns on that play. One time, Pycraft faked the pitch, kept it and ran for a big score for us, but came over to me and apologized for not pitching it to me.
“He said he noticed the defense closing in on me. I told him it didn’t matter who scored. We won the game.”
Holovacs, who shared the Golden Helmet award with Wellington’s Tim Burns in 1974, is now a councilman in Vermilion, but he remains loyal to the Falcons.
“I remember when I played at Bowling Green,” Holovacs said. “I’d always grab the paper on Saturday morning to check the scores. I’ll be there Friday night. I met the coach — he’s a real good guy and they have Frank Horvath on the staff (former Wellington and Vermilion head coach). They’re building the program.”
Holovacs was the leading rusher and scorer but Larry Matos finished with over 800 yards on the ground, 460 receiving and scored over 100 points. Pycraft threw for 1,186 yards and 12 touchdowns in an era when high schools didn’t throw the ball and spread the field the way they do today. Scott Littleton had 31 receptions for 408 yards and two touchdowns.
Steve Driver (116 tackles) and Littleton (83) led the defense. Jim Naro picked off a half-dozen interceptions.
Some of the members from that team plan to be in attendance tonight, cheering on the Falcons.
“Once a Falcon, always a Falcon,” Holovacs said.
Contact Tim Gebhardt at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.