‘They’re not just happy to be there’ — Alter eyes Division IV state title

Knights face Cleveland Glenville in Division IV championship game Saturday night

Ed Domsitz and his Alter football staff know how to prepare for a state championship game. They’ve done it five times before and won it all in 2008 and 2009.

While most game-week preparation replicates every other week, a week like this is unavoidably different with past players coming in to speak, the spike in excitement and the send off to Canton.

As important as absorbing the scouting report is, not getting caught up in the extra stuff matters just as much. When Domsitz talked on a state-wide coaches conference call on Tuesday, he wasn’t worried about that. Once the Knights had dispatched of Steubenville 48-0 in the semifinals, he saw a team ready to focus on Cleveland Glenville.

“These kids have not been to a state championship game, but they are focused and they don’t just want to show up — they’re not just happy to be there,” he said. “They are preparing this week with the intention of going up there and winning.”

The Knights (12-3) meet the defending champion Tarblooders (12-2) in the Division IV final at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

Defense has headlined the Knights’ playoff run with shutouts the past two weeks and only nine points allowed in five games. The offense, however, has been more than just good enough and is coming off its best performance of the season considering the stage and opponent. They moved the ball at will against Steubenville and took advantage of help from their defense.

Domsitz sad the offensive line has improved since the beginning of the season led by three seniors: center Jake Noga, guard Jackson Wright and tackle Nathan Fussnecker. Noga, 6-foot and 281 pounds, was named to the all-Southwest District first team and is being recruited by Division III programs.

“He’s the rock in the middle,” Domsitz said. “He makes the blocking calls probably as effectively as if I had a coach on the field. In many respects, it’s like having a Nick Mangold or a Joe Thuney out there.”

For reference, Mangold played at Ohio State, was a first-round draft pick, played in seven Pro Bowls and is in the New York Jets’ ring of honor. Thuney played on the state championship teams, is a starting guard for the Kansas City Chiefs and has three Super Bowl rings.

Behind those veterans are junior quarterback Gavin Connor and three sophomore running backs. Domsitz mixes the wishbone and spread formations with Connor in the shotgun. The Knights still run the ball at more than a 2 to 1 ratio, but Conner, who became the starter during his freshman season, makes the Knights unpredictable.

“We don’t go into a game saying, ‘OK, we’re going to run the football more than pass or we’re going to be in the shotgun more than we’re going to be in the wishbone,’” Domsitz said. “Probably some additional problems or challenges for the upcoming opponent or for anybody trying to handle both offenses.”

Connor has completed 59% of his passes (121 for 205) for 1,547 yards, 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. He became the Knight’s all-time leading passer this season, and he’s experienced enough to have freedom to change the play at the line of scrimmage.

“Biggest difference is probably decision making,” Domsitz said. “He does a nice job of reading progressions. We’re not just the team that’s going to drop back and heave the ball down the field.”

Connor is part of the running game that averages 212.4 yards a game and has 48 touchdowns. He is third in yards with 517 and second in carries with 87. Noah Jones has been the lead back all season with 1.231 yards on 213 carries and 18 touchdowns. Rod Owens’ running of late creates more diversity in the attack. He has 599 yards on 86 carries (40 of them in the playoffs) and nine touchdowns. No wishbone game would be complete without a fullback. Mike Rose does that job with 11 touchdowns and 304 yards on 72 carries.

“All of them have a good amount of speed, and they are doing a much better job in terms of trying to find the seam instead of trying to balance everything,” Domsitz said.

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