The News-Herald coverage area has been blessed with a lot of postseason football success since the advent of the OHSAA playoffs 50 years ago.
Benedictine, Chardon, and Kirtland have won multiple state titles. VASJ won one when it was St. Joseph in 1989. Kenston won one four years ago. Chagrin Falls, Hawken, Mentor and South have all made runs to the state finals.
But one of the most memorable, and certainly one of the most dominant, News-Herald area teams grabbed headlines with its second consecutive state championship 30 years ago: The 1992 Lake Catholic Cougars.
Combining an unstoppable offense, a fierce, stingy defense, and game-changing special teams play, the ’92 Cougars ran roughshod over their opposition on the way to a 14-0 season, capped with another state title after having won the program’s first in 1991.
In 2014, the News-Herald published a story documenting the 50 greatest high school football teams in area history. Led by as talented and as intelligent a group of players that has ever played in this area, and one of the best coaching staffs in area history, the 1992 Lake Catholic team was deservedly chosen as the No. 1 team. Here’s a look back at that team after 30 years have passed.
Right after Lake Catholic put the finishing touches on its 45-20 Division III state championship win over Cincinnati Academy of Physical Education in 1991, thoughts of some observers quickly turned to whether or not the Cougars could do it again in 1992.
On offense, the pieces were there, with starting quarterback Pete Jelovic, running back Carmen Ilacqua, and All-Ohio wide receiver Joe Jurevicius leading. Expectations were tempered somewhat on defense, as just two starters returned.
The 1990 and 1991 teams had laid the foundation, and the talented 1992 Cougars followed the blueprint. The 1990 Cougars followed an undefeated regular season with a playoff win over Wickliffe, followed by a controversial loss to Youngstown Cardinal Mooney in which running back Marty Loncar appeared to have scored a late go-ahead touchdown, only to be ruled down inches short of the goal line. Mooney went on to win in double overtime. Many believed that the ‘90 Cougars were good enough to win it all, and the defeat spurred the program to reach greater heights.
The ’91 Cougars lost once in the regular season, 20-17 to St. Ignatius. Otherwise, they were virtually unimpeded in capturing the first state championship in school and county history.
“The seniors when we were sophomores showed us how to do it, and how to do it right, and they were driven,” said Ed Locker, a standout at offensive and defensive tackle on the ’91 and ’92 teams. “The class behind them built on that, and we built on that. The two classes ahead of us were just awesome.”
PICK YOUR POISON
Lake Catholic racked up 3,422 yards and 402 points in the 1992 regular season. The fact that 2,144 of those yards came through the air made the Cougars somewhat unique — most of area teams ran the ball the majority of the time. Jelovic, a “calming influence” and heady leader, was sacked four times all season, including the playoffs, and passed for 1,985 yards and 23 touchdowns behind a big, powerful offensive line consisting of Locker, Dan Holian, Brian Holtz, TC Couhig, and Russell May.
The lack of pressure in most games helped increase the confidence of Jelovic, who found the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Jurevicius 40 times for 649 yards and nine touchdowns. Jurevicius drew double and triple-coverage in every game, and fellow receiver Scott Youmell (32 receptions, 378 yards, five TDs) and tight end Scott O’Donnell (34 catches for 507 yards, five TDs) presented Jelovic with additional targets and opposing defensive coordinators with additional headaches.
Ilacqua was straw that truly stirred the Cougars’ drink. Lightning quick and energetic, Ilacqua was equally adept at running the ball (930 yards in the regular season, 1440 including the playoffs), pass-blocking in the backfield, and receiving (21 catches for 394 regular-season yards), and was a touchdown machine, with 24 before the playoffs.
“I couldn’t do what I did without our offensive line,” Ilacqua said. “Those guys were big, athletic and smart. Running behind those guys was easy.”
Defenses were frequently overwhelmed by the number of options on the Cougars offense.
“Jurevicius was 6-2, 6-3, and you had to put two guys on him,” defensive back John Scolaro said at a recent gathering at a local restaurant with three of his Lake Catholic teammates. “And then you add in Youmell, O’Donnell, and Carmen. You couldn’t cover everybody.”
Lake Catholic head coach John Gibbons and offensive coordinator Bill Hamley designed a one-back offense, featuring Ilacqua in the backfield, and a four-receiver set (including messenger receivers John Cocco and Tom Pikus) that incorporated run-and-shoot concepts and looked a lot similar to offenses that are common today.
Gibbons, impressed after having witnessed a high-scoring contest between St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Moeller, learned many of the building blocks for his offense at a football camp at Ohio State.
“I saw Moeller run up 47 points on Ignatius, and nobody was scoring that many points on them,” Gibbons said. “I talked to Mike Stock, who had previously worked with the Cincinnati Bengals, at Ohio State, and he said ‘Coach, I have it all right here, inside zone, outside zone, counter.’”
Much of Lake Catholic’s offensive success originated from that chance conversation between Gibbons and Stock.
Hamley came up with the play-calling system, which often involved interesting play names that likely sounded strange to opposing defenses, but were easy to remember for the Cougars, and Jelovic was trusted to read the defense and adjust play-calls if warranted.
“We had a simple color-number system,” Youmell said. “Pete made the calls at the line, and if he changed the play, we all knew what to do. We put in wrinkles throughout the season. Our bread-and-butter play was the screen pass. We would throw the ball to Carmen, and he would pick up yards behind a wall of blockers.”
Jurevicius pointed to the offense’s overall talent.
“We had back-to-back Division I quarterbacks,” Jurevicius said, referring to Rick Trefzger (Purdue) and Jelovic (started at Kansas State before transferring). “We had an offensive line that was adept at both pass-blocking and run blocking. We had bigger wide receivers. And we had a running back in Carmen that was a threat to score every time he touched the ball….we just had a lot of talent.”
Jurevicius’ pass-catching chemistry with Jelovic started when they were younger.
“Pete was one of my best friends,” Jurevicius said of fellow Willowick native Jelovic. “We spent a lot of time on the field at North when we were growing up, throwing the ball around. Fortunately, we both had good size, and that helped us a lot playing in high school.”
As dynamic as the offense was, the nasty, tough-to-penetrate, swarming defense was every bit as critical to dominating opponents.
Gibbons described the necessary attributes to start on defense for Lake Catholic: “Tenacious. Play hard every play. Do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it. Do your job.”
Perhaps no one epitomized that spirit more than O’Donnell, a fiery defensive end with a nonstop motor who was difficult for offensive lines to contain, accumulating 16 sacks. Holtz, Holian, and Locker joined O’Donnell on the line, while Mark Genter, Brian Ferritto, and Brian Wervey played linebacker in the Cougars’ 4-3 scheme, modeled after that of Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes. Nick Capel, Ilacqua, Scolaro, and Youmell comprised the secondary.
Youmell finished the season (including playoffs) with nine interceptions, and the Lake Catholic defense held opponents to 1,511 total yards during the regular season, less than 800 each against the pass and the run. In pregame interviews throughout the postseason, opposing coaches paid notice that the Cougars were every bit as dangerous on defense as on offense despite being less recognized.
Special teams were a special point of emphasis for Gibbons and his coaching staff. To this day, each of the Lake Catholic alums remembers the kickoff team in particular.
Gibbons looked for 11 players who were willing to “run as fast as they can down the field and hit somebody as hard as they could”. Whenever Lake Catholic won the pregame coin toss, Gibbons would elect to defer his choice to the second half, thus putting his kickoff team on the field first to set a physical tone for the game right from the start.
“I don’t know if it was The News-Herald that ran an article just on our kickoff team,” Scolaro said. “It was called the Zoom Team. It was just 11 guys, even the kicker, that all wanted to be in on the tackle.”
Chris Dillon, a member of the 1991 state champion that went on to play college football at Otterbein, remembers the Zoom Team well.
“Gibbons always deferred, because he wanted to send the kickoff team out to hit you,” Dillon said. “I think I broke three or four helmets in high school (on the Zoom Team). We got black stripes on our helmets for every big hit.”
Besides putting fear into their opponents on kickoffs, the Cougars’ special teams would have made legendary Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer proud with several key blocked field goals and extra points, and kickoff and punt returns for scores.
“The biggest plays that are made in a game often are on special teams,” Gibbons said. “You’re going to have to be able to run, be disciplined, and be physical.”
FOLLOW THE LEADER
Nearly any successful football team directly reflects the personality of its coach. An intense, emotional leader, with a staff of assistant coaches that embodied similar characteristics, Gibbons was revered by his players, who each would have done anything he asked.
“Fiery, intense, terrific football mind,” Ilacqua said of Gibbons. “Great guy. It was a privilege to play for him. And he had a great coaching staff around him.”
Lake Catholic thrived on emotion, and Gibbons’ pregame speeches had his players ready to run though the proverbial wall.
“It really does come from the top down,” said Ferritto, a three-year starter at defensive end and linebacker who was a junior in 1992. “You’re going to take on the characteristics of the leader of your group. (Gibbons) was aggressive, emotional, intense. It was easy for us players to feed off of that. There was a lot of talk about tradition, and the expectation that things were done a certain way.”
Gibbons and his staff were constantly watching film, and obsessive and thorough in preparing the Cougars for each week’s opponent, down to the smallest detail.
“Every week, I knew everything about the player I would be going up against,” said Dillon, who played defensive end. “I knew his name, what kind of player he was, his tendencies on the field. I’ve never seen anyone that watched as much film as Gibbons.”
Gibbons wanted his players to be so prepared, having practiced everything that might happen on the field over and over during the week, to make everything so second nature that all his players would have to do on game nights is go onto the field and react, because all the work had been done during the week.
If things didn’t go according to plan, there were few coaching staffs in the area in the early ’90s that were as adept at making halftime adjustments.
“Gibbons would have a game plan, and by halftime that plan might be gone, depending on what happened in the first half,” Dillon said. “They were always able to make great adjustments.”
Any questions about whether or not the 1992 version of the Cougars could be as good as 1991 version were answered emphatically in the first game, against a strong St. Edward team.
A game that was expected to be close was anything but, as Lake Catholic blocked three punts, all of them leading to touchdowns, and blasted the Eagles, 56-7. The Cougars scored 28 points in the second quarter. Jelovic threw for two scores to Jurevicius, who had 116 yards on five receptions.
“I don’t think anyone expected that,” Ferritto said. “It was an eye-opening kind of game to say that we had a lot of firepower. It was a good way to get the ball rolling out of the gate.”
The Cougars improved to 5-0 with routs of Division I Berea (34-6), Holy Name (52-7), Chanel (68-0), and NDCL (56-7).
“We had Bryan (Wervey) who was as smart as can be, Pete who’s as smart as can be, and coaches that were there to build that,” said Holian, a starter at center and defensive tackle whose father was an assistant coach for the Cougars. “We were calling audibles at the line. What other team was doing that?”
In Week 6, the Lake Catholic offense was finally slowed somewhat in a rainy encounter with Division I Walsh Jesuit. Led by big and powerful defensive end Mike Vrabel, now head coach of the Tennessee Titans, the Warriors held the Cougars to 205 yards and intercepted Jelovic three times.
But defense and special teams came to the rescue. The Cougars forced five turnovers, turned away an early scoring threat, and Wervey and Ferritto each blocked a kick. Ilacqua rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown as Lake Catholic prevailed, 21-3.
The Cougars followed by blanking Trinity (37-0). But computer points were beginning to loom as an issue. Lake Catholic was 7-0, but barely holding on in the Division III, Region 9 playoff race, in which the top four teams advanced to the postseason.
“At that point, with the computer system, we knew we had to win out to get in,” Holian said. “We were fourth in our region even though we were undefeated.”
A 30-7 win over 5-2 Padua the next week helped in that regard, but Gibbons was concerned about complacency setting in. After watching films of that win, he surprised the players by taking them outside and having them run 16 100-yard runs.
Gibbons’ thinking was probably prescient, as Lake Catholic fell behind an athletic Cleveland Central Catholic team in Week 9, 14-0, before rallying for a 24-14 win.
The Cougars blanked rival VASJ, 24-0, to finish the regular season 10-0, having already won their fifth consecutive North Coast League championship.
Lake Catholic finished ranked No 1 in the AP poll in Division III, and qualified for the playoffs as the third seed in Region 9.
The Cougars were matched up with old nemesis Youngstown Mooney in the regional quarterfinal, at Niles McKinley, and everyone on the Lake Catholic sideline remembered the controversial loss two seasons before.
Lake Catholic left nothing to chance this time, building a 41-0 lead before Mooney had some late success against the Cougars’ reserves to make the final 41-24. Taking note that the Cardinals were geared to stop the pass, Ilacqua ran for 124 yards and three touchdowns. Jelovic still passed for 139 yards, and Wervey returned an interception for a touchdown.
The highlight play of the night, though, was a reverse handoff to Youmell, who sprinted down the far sideline to finish off a 69-yard touchdown run. As he approached the 10-yard line, two Mooney defensive backs were hot in pursuit.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Jurevicius laid a blistering block on one defender, knocking him to the ground, turned and did the same to the other defender seconds later, allowing Youmell to get into the end zone.
NEVER SAY DIE
The Cougars’ perfect season almost came to an end in the regional final against Youngstown Ursuline, the region’s top seed, in a game played at Warren Mollenkopf Stadium.
“They were the total package,” Locker remembered. Big, strong, fast. They might have been better than that St. Ignatius team that beat us in 1991.”
It just didn’t seem to be the Cougars’ night. Struggling to get anything going on offense and having a tough time on defense with Trevor Starghill and the Fighting Irish running game, Lake Catholic fell behind 14-0, at halftime.
Making matters worse, the Cougars lost Jurevicius to a knee injury in the second quarter.
At halftime, Gibbons fired up his team, and then attempted to fire up what he felt was a too-quiet Lake Catholic crowd. Marching out of the locker room, Gibbons grabbed one of the benches, picked it up and heaved it, yelling at the crowd in the process.
“The fans weren’t cheering very loudly, they were acting like they knew this was going to happen,” Gibbons explained. “I found a place where nobody was nearby, picked up the bench, and threw it. I thought: ‘You’ve been cheering us on all year, and now you’re going to abandon us because we’re struggling a little bit?’”
Unfortunately, the histrionics didn’t work, at least not right away. Starghill took a handoff and was off to the races on a 76-yard scoring play, putting the Cougars into an even bigger 21-0 hole. But it wasn’t over.
Following a fumble recovery by O’Donnell, Ilacqua scored three plays later on a 3-yard run to make it 21-7. Youmell picked off his eighth pass of the season soon after, and Ilacqua scored from 6 yards out. Jim Novakovich added the extra point to cut it to 21-14.
In the fourth quarter, Ferritto made a diving interception, and Jelovic connected with O’Donnell on a 11-yard TD pass to tie it, 21-21, with 11:22 left in the game.
Ursuline drove down to a 38-yard field goal attempt, but Wervey blocked it to give the ball back to the Cougars with 5:15 left.
Forced to punt on the next possession, Lake Catholic was given new life on a penalty called on Ursuline on the punt, and retained possession with a first down at the 49.
Nine plays after that, Lake Catholic faced a fourth down in field-goal range, and called on Novakovich to win it on a 24-yard attempt.
Ursuline called time out, and Jelovic told Novakovich a joke to relax him. Though not really wanting to hear it at the moment, it may have done the trick, as Novakovich put the ball through the uprights and Lake Catholic had pulled off a stunning, 24-21 comeback.
In the state semifinal, Lake Catholic squared off at Mansfield Arlin Stadium against Lima Bath, a team heavily reliant on its two 1,000-yard running backs and a ball-control offense. The Cougars were favorites, but Gibbons wouldn’t let them overlook Bath.
“Through all 14 games, I don’t think we ever thought that we were going to win any game,” Wervey said. “We were fearful of what what our opponents could do, our coaches put that mindset in us. Even with Lima Bath, we were fearful of their two running backs. We were petrified that they might be able to control us with their running game.”
As it turned out, Wervey and his teammates had nothing to worry about, even with the injured Jurevicius in street clothes on the sideline. Ilacqua dominated, carrying for 179 yards and four touchdowns, and catching four passes for 66 yards and another. Lake Catholic led, 42-0, in the third quarter on its way to a 42-13 victory.
It would be Lake Catholic vs. Ironton at Paul Brown Stadium in Massillon for the Division III state championship. The Tigers were led by tailback Jermon Jackson, quarterback Ryan Guthrie, and 6-7, 280-pound, Ohio State-bound offensive tackle Walt DeLong.
“Ironton had some pretty good offensive players,” recalled Ilacqua. “A good running back, a good quarterback. Some big offensive linemen.”
Nevertheless, Ironton was no match for the Cougars. Lake Catholic outgained the Tigers, 408-176, and won easily, 31-7. The Ironton running game was held to 65 yards.
Meanwhile, after a Novakovich field goal, each of the Cougars’ four main offensive weapons scored a touchdown. O’Donnell caught a 20-yard scoring pass from Jelovic, Youmell caught a 60-yard scoring strike, Ilacqua ran one in from the 4, and a returning Jurevicius caught a 38-yard TD pass in the third quarter. Jelovic passed for 259 yards.
“I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Ilacqua said. “To end your senior season like that, to get into the end zone in the state championship game, it was great that it was spread around to all four of us.”
A feeling of happiness mixed with a sense of relief washed over the players after it was all over. Thousands of kids have played high school football in over for some 130 years, and only a small percentage have ever experienced one state championship, let alone two.
Everything aligned perfectly for the Cougars in 1992 — a talented group of players who played with or against each other from CYO to high school. A drive to hold each other accountable, making sure that everyone was at every workout, every practice, every film session. The players knew what they had, knew what they had a chance to do, and wanted to make sure nothing ruined it.
They had the right coaching staff, led by a man held in reverence by the players to this day. They had the right attitude, the necessary football IQ, and above all, the necessary talent to stand above their opposition.
They had the bonds of friendship forged through competing together, bonds that have carried on 30 years later.
“We were a close-knit group,” there’s a good component of 10 to 12 of us that are still really good friends,” said Wervey, who joined Scolaro, Holian and Locker at a local restaurant to rehash the old days, laughing, good-naturedly ripping on each other, and correcting each other on details of events during their championship season.
Wervey noted that they get together about three or four times a year, and usually five or six more of their teammates join them.
“Again, we had some pretty good talent,” Wervey continued. “A couple of D-I guys, and a handful of D-III guys then went to OAC schools. And Coach Hamley was way ahead of his time with his single-back sets. We were doing things nobody else was doing at the time.”
Ten members of the team went on to play college football. Jurevicius played at Penn State before
being drafted by the New York Giants. Jurevicius had a 10-year NFL career, playing for the Giants, Buccaneers, Seahawks and Browns.
“Just being around a group of guys that worked hard,” Jurevicius said in regard to the foundation set at Lake Catholic that helped him have success at Penn State and in the NFL. “Having success and knowing what that felt like. I was fortunate to be around a group of guys that didn’t take anything for granted. I learned a lot about what it took to dedicate yourself to a goal and how to achieve it.”
Jelovic earned a scholarship to Kansas State, but eventually transferred to Emporia State (Kansas), where he set several passing records.
Holtz and Locker played at Dayton. Ilacqua and Jelovic started at Dayton, before transferring to John Carroll. Cocco played at CWRU, Ed Paradise and O’Donnell at John Carroll, and Wervey at Mount Union.
O’Donnell is the head coach at Brookside in Lorain County, and Wervey is the defensive coordinator at Aurora, where he’s been for a decade. A few of the players have sons or nephews that are part of the current Lake Catholic program, hoping to continue the legacy.
All of the guys and are busy with families and careers, but if one wants to talk to any of them about that unforgettable season, they’ll be more than happy to oblige.
“You don’t get sick of taking about it, but you might wonder if the other person is sick of hearing about it,” Youmell said with a laugh. “It’s amazing. We had such a great group of guys, great community, great fans. To think about that 30 years later, that what we did for three months when we were 17 or 18 years old, that people not only remember it, but that they think that highly of us, is incredible.”