MASSILLON - The silence from the rows of Kirtland underclassmen watching the seniors on the trophy stage after Saturday's Division V state championship game spoke volumes.
After the volume of wins the defending D-V state champion Hornets had accumulated the last two years - 29 in a row to be exact - this silence marked quiet reflection, as one of the most commendable two-year runs in area high school football history came to an agonizing halt.
Kyle Bergman's 28-yard field goal on the final play of the opening half wound up being the difference on the scoreboard as Coldwater edged Kirtland, 10-9, in a thrilling state final at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.
"We accomplished a lot," Hornets senior standout running back Damon Washington said. "It's hard to swallow losing by one point in the state championship. But hey, we came from far away, and to make it here twice is an accomplishment in itself, so I'm proud of my teammates."
For moments with the game hanging in the balance Saturday, it appeared Kirtland (14-1) was potentially one big play for the ages away from securing its second straight 15-0 campaign.
But it wasn't to be on this picture-perfect December afternoon.
"I just thought our defense did an outstanding job, giving us some chances," Coach Tiger LaVerde said. "They're a very good football team. They're great kids, and I have great kids, too. These kids lost one game in two years. It stinks it has to be today. But win, lose or draw, these are amazing young men, and I am very proud of them."
Midway through the fourth quarter, Hornets senior Scott Eilerman delivered an outstanding punt that was downed at the Coldwater 1. On second down, the Cavaliers tried a screen out of their own end zone, but Kirtland sophomore Sam Skiljan made a nice tackle on Brody Hoying for a safety to pull the Hornets within 10-9.
Kirtland took over but had its drive stall at the Cavaliers' 42 when Coldwater defensive end Andrew Schwieterman tipped an Eilerman pass on third-and-9. LaVerde, as he had throughout, trusted the game with his defense, electing to punt.
"Obviously, we would have liked to move the ball a little bit better," said LaVerde, referring to his offense generating 199 yards after averaging nearly 404 a game coming in. "We had a chance there at the end, inside the 50 with the ball, and a couple of first downs and we might have been able to kick a field goal.
"Their defense is very good - there is no doubt about it. We knew that, and every time we made a little bit of progress, we couldn't get in a rhythm - a real rhythm where we got going. Hats off to them. They played an outstanding game defensively, and I thought our defense did a nice job. We just didn't have the consistency on offense, and I'll take the blame for that. These guys played their hearts out."
On third-and-8 from their 22, the Cavaliers delivered perhaps the play of their season. Quarterback Austin Bruns, who had displayed an impressive elusiveness and ability to improvise on several plays in the first half and again down the stretch, rolled to his right and connected with Kyle Post for a 44-yard completion to the Kirtland 34.
It would up being Coldwater's longest play from scrimmage.
"We're in man, and we covered them up pretty good," LaVerde said. "They were running a little stop route, trying to get the first down, and the quarterback just bought time and rolled around. The kid stopped and took off down the sideline. The quarterback made a very nice throw, and they made a good throw and catch. Otherwise, they would have punted and we would have been in decent field position."
Eventually, the Hornets were able to force the punt they needed, but not necessarily in the most optimal spot.
Kirtland took over at its 5 with 2:34 to go in a situation of which many high school football programs would dream, down one point with the ball and the state championship on the line.
But no drive for the ages was in the offing, as an Eilerman pass on third-and-10 from the Hornets' 35 was intercepted by Hoying to seal the state title for Coldwater in its fourth straight trip to the state final. The Cavaliers won their first championship since 2007.
Kirtland's streak came to an end at 29 wins, and the D-V state championship left for another destination Saturday, but Eilerman is hopeful those underclassmen who stood in silence at midfield watching their graduating seniors know what they need to do next.
"Coming in as a freshman, we didn't make the playoffs," Eilerman said. "I think we've left a pretty good legacy, and we set a standard. When I was in eighth grade and they lost to Ursuline (18-17 in a 2008 Division V regional final), they set the standard. And we came in, last year we won a state championship, set a new standard. Then we got back, came up one point short. It stinks, but I think our legacy is pretty good.
"A lot of people are going to remember this team."