Imagine going from nine wins over the previous seven years to 10-0 and a state playoff berth.
“In some ways, we’ve surprised ourselves on how good we did and how well we performed,” said Firelands’ Joe Kudela, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound senior. “This group of seniors has been together since fifth grade. From Day 1 we grew up in a culture that wasn’t used to winning but we saw the talent and the team chemistry that we had and we just said we’re going to change the culture.”
Kudela and his teammates will head to playoff-tested Chagrin Falls, the state’s fourth-rated team, for a Division III postseason opener tonight with the mind-set ‘Why not?’ After all, they’ve had a surprise season, so why shouldn’t it continue?
Kudela, listed as a running back but who lines up just about anywhere on offense, will do whatever it takes to win.
“That’s the beauty of our offense,” Kudela said. “You’ll never know (where he lines up). I really don’t know half the time. (The coach) tells us what formation to line up in and we go from that.”
Kudela’s the leading receiver on the team with 29 catches for 700 yards and nine touchdowns, including an amazing 76-yard strike against Buckeye that got the Falcons back in the game after falling behind in a wild 40-36 victory.
“It was actually a blown play,” Kudela said. “It turned out to be a route that wasn’t called in by the coaches. (Quarterback) Kyle (Smith) saw something in the defense and did a little signal to me and I ended up running the route he wanted on the sidelines and he put the ball right where it needed to be. I didn’t have to adjust to it or anything. It was perfectly thrown.”
Kudela’s also rushed for 271 yards and two scores, including a 67-yarder against Keystone in the first quarter. He’s scored 76 points. Kudela, who also plays linebacker, is among the leaders in tackles with 81, including 41 solo. He’s intercepted two passes, caused a fumble and recovered two.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of the pass routes be open my way,” Kudela said. “Same with a lot of the receivers. We spread the ball around tremendously. It’s not just one person. We have a lot of people catching the ball. Running-wise, we’re opening the holes for (Nick) Deichler and (Kyle) Smith. The line is doing a tremendous job.
“On defense, it’s the same thing. We all do our part. We’re a team all-around, both on the field and off — both. We’re family.”
“He’s a great kid,” Falcons coach Mike Passerrello said of Kudela. “He’s a true team player that doesn’t mind doing the dirty work. He’ll go downfield and block. He’s helped us achieve a lot of our goals.”
Talk about fate? At the start of last season, Passerrello had no idea he’d be guiding the Falcons to an undefeated season. He was an assistant coach and defensive coordinator on a team left scrambling when previous head coach Todd Pooch was forced to resign three weeks into the season.
Passerrello took over and though the team only won two games all year, the last one came against rival Vermilion to close out the season.
“You could sense the potential,” Passerrello said. “The win over Vermilion definitely helped. We wanted to keep things moving forward and gel together. We wanted to enforce some trust in each other.”
“We were thankful to get a coach with the same attitude,” Kudela said. “He brought in a whole new coaching staff with the same attitude as him. We all came together as a family.”
The timing was perfect. Firelands was leaving the West Shore Conference where, as Passerello said, “we played teams with more depth every week.”
The Falcons moved to the Patriot Athletic Conference with schools more their size. An opening-night win over Lutheran West got Firelands off on the right foot and when it beat New London and then Vermilion again, the Falcons were ready for the new challenges of playing in a new league.
But the playoffs?
“As a team, we didn’t really worry about it,” Kudela said. “We just took it one game at a time and we were very well taught by our coaches that all we can do is what we can do. All we can do is win the games and if it plays out for us, it plays out for us.”
“We never really talked about the playoffs,” Passerrello said. “We stayed focused on one game at a time. We emphasized to take care of what we can control.”
It’s been quite a turnaround, but Kudela said it took a lot of hard work.
“Before, we hadn’t really pushed ourselves,” Kudela said. “We hadn’t really overcome adversity. Coach Pass (Passerrello) taught us the proper work ethic we needed to win and jell as a team. We changed our attitude and started to get a little swagger. We realized, ‘Hey, this is for real.’ We can do this and now we’re 10-0 and in the playoffs. We have great team chemistry. That Buckeye game, I think it showed the heart and determination this team really does have. Hopefully, we’re not done yet.”
Chagrin spreads the field and is pretty balanced at both passing and running the football. Firelands has rolled up some impressive numbers this year. The Falcons have averaged nearly 36 points a game while giving up just over two touchdowns. Defensively, Chagrin has given up 13.8 points a game but has scored 31.4. It’ll be a battle of offenses but don’t be surprised if the game is won with defense.
Chagrin Falls’ quarterback — 5-foot-11, 208-pound junior Tommy Iammarino — is the coach’s son and has completed nearly 70 percent of his throws. He’s been picked off just twice all year. Chagrin has run for nearly 2,000 yards on the year led by 5-10, 200-pound junior Jack Campbell and his 6.1 average. The Tigers have thrown for just over 1,300 yards. Anthony DeCamillo, a 6-2 senior, is the leading receiver with 27 receptions but four other Tigers have caught at least nine passes. Senior kicker Alex Hallwachs had booted five field goals — two coming from better than 35 yards. Senior 6-0 linebacker Kurt Vidmer leads the defense with 95 total tackles. Senior strong safety Everett Dishong has 82 tackles. DeCamillo has four of Chagrin’s 13 interceptions.
Chagrin won’t beat itself. It has kept its penalties (39) and turnovers (eight) to a minimum all year. Coach Iammarino is impressed with Firelands’ size and athletic ability. He said the Falcon defensive line is huge and the linebackers are very athletic. He’s wary of Kyle Smith’s ability to run and throw. It all starts with Smith at quarterback. Smith has been responsible for 213 of Firelands’ 359 points with 22 touchdown passes, 10 rushing touchdowns and 21 conversion points. Smith’s father, Dave Smith, was Firelands’ quarterback in 1989 when the Falcons won their first nine games before losing to Wellington to end the season. Kyle Smith, a National Honor Society member, has thrown for nearly 2,700 yards in his three years as a starter with 30 TD passes. Backs Nick Deichler and Joe Kudela give the Falcons a one-two punch in the backfield. Deichler has run for 1,381 yards while Kudela has 700 yards in receptions and 271 yards on the ground. Defensively, Firelands is led by linebacker Zack Hofecker (120 total tackles), Joe DeWitt (83), Kudela (81) and Deichler (74). Deichler, Smith and Cody Northeim each have three interceptions. Firelands’ defense has forced 27 turnovers including 15 interceptions.
Coach Passerrello hasn’t faced a spread offense like the one Chagrin Falls runs but he believes his team will be ready. Both coaches expect a great battle. If Firelands can overcome its jitters from a first-time playoff appearance, the Falcons could pull the upset but Chagrin Falls has been here before, and playing on its own turf obviously is an advantage.
Talk about being versatile and you’ve got to be thinking Cody Northeim of Firelands.
Football, basketball, track and baseball — name the sport and Northeim’s out there giving it his best shot.
“He’s very unselfish,” Firelands coach Mike Passerrello said. “He’ll do anything. He makes the tough catches that aren’t big plays. He does the dirty work when it comes to blocking down field. A lot of his blocks have sprung open big runs. He’s our punter and kicker.
“He was injured after the third game of the season last year and didn’t play after that but he’s worked hard to come back and have a great senior season.”
Northeim, 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds, has caught 30 passes for 421 yards and four touchdowns at wide receiver. On defense, he’s intercepted three passes, recovered a fumble and was responsible for eight pass breakups. He’s 12-of-21 on point-after kicks and is averaging just under 30 yards a kick as a punter.
“I’ll do anything,” he said. “I want to be out there every single play.”
After last year, Northeim didn’t really expect a 10-0 season.
“Not in a million years,” he said. “But Coach Pass has been the right guy at the right time. He had leadership meetings and we knew as soon as he got the job, things were going to be different. It’s been a total team effort.
“We kind of felt after a couple of our seven-on-seven scrimmages we could be good. We had a lot of confidence. This week has been crazy. We just want to get out and play.”
Contact Tim Gebhardt at 329-7135 or email@example.com.