CLEVELAND, OH - Surprise to some but not to the players and coaches.
The unbeaten Chardon Hilltoppers (5-0) face their biggest challenge of season Friday night as the battle host Willoughby South (5-0) at Harry Winters Stadium. The Premier Athletic Conference showdown features two state-ranked teams.
"I would be lying if I did not say I'm somewhat surprised by our success," Chardon coach Mitch Hewitt said. "This is year two of a learning curve. We have a tremendous staff. The kids are responding well. They worked hard during the off season."
Hewitt added the Hilltoppers success on the football field is good for the Chardon community, student body and players.
"It gives everybody something to root for," he said.
Chardon also tops Division II, Region 5 of the OHSAA computer rankings. South is fifth in Division I, Region 1.
Chardon offensive starters are seniors T.J. Benenati at quarterback Alex Muir and Reilly Hawkins at halfback, junior Matt Bolden at halfback, senior R.J. Pikus at split end and juniors Andrew Gray at tight end.
"TJ (Benenati) has stepped in and done a phenomenal job for us at quarterback," Hewitt said. "He is a layermaker and leader on the field. He also is an excellent student in the classroom."
Junior Marty Keppler is the left tackle. Other starters are seniors Jared Urcheck at left guard,, Wilkes at center, Travis Ritt at right tackle and Nick Paull at right guard. Junior Bobby Bucovec is the place kicker.
"We use a lot of formations," Hewitt said. "Our goal is to hide the football. We're a run oriented team. We'll throw the ball three to seven times per game. We've only thrown the ball 22 times in five games. We're a big play offense. We spread guys out and like to go coast to coast."
Benenati has 585 yards rushing this season. Bolden has gained 487 yards followed by Hawkins (336) and Muir (281). Defensive starters are junior Joe Fedor and Urcheck at end, senior Nick Rizzo and Keppler at tackle, junior Nick Lippert, senior Jack Lemasters and Pikus at linebacker. Safeties are Muir and junior Joe Connick. Cornerbacks are junior Anthony Cantanziriti and Hawkins. Junior Drew Gittins is the punter. Junior defensive tackle Neil Thomas and junior linebacker Pete Lemasters will miss the game because of injuries.
"The players have a better understanding of our defensive system in the second year," Hewitt said. "We're fundamentally better and our technique is improving. Our overall team speed is also better. We've come a long way from last year. We're more stingy with points and yardage."
Jack Lemasters leads the team in tackles with 34. It will take a solid effort on both sides of the ball for the Hilltoppers to beat South.
"Offensively, we have to manage the clock and execute our game plan," Hewitt said. "No one has been able to stop their offense. We have to limit big plays. Kareem (Hunt) will get his plays and yardage. We have to do our best to contain him. "
South's massive offensive line also is a concern.
"Those guys don't get enough credit," Hewitt said. "They move people and create opportunities."
This game will be a tremendous measuring stick for the Chardon football program.
"This is a great opportunity for us," Hewitt said. "We're playing a prime time game. It should be exciting. We have no pressure on us."
The Rebels have high expectations this season and Friday night's game will give them a opportunity to pick up some valuable computer points with a win.
"I think we're growing each week," South coach Matt Duffy said."We're getting better each practice and each game. There is still a lot of room for improvement. Our kids are hungry to get better. They want to get to the another level. We have a few levels to climb"
South offensive starters are seniors Casey Klicman at quarterback,Kareem Hunt at halfback, Anthony Federico, Tony Walton, TJ Lett and Andrew Venclauskas at wide receiver. Hunt (5-11, 204) has gained 1,296 yards on 106 carries this season with 21 rushing touchdowns .
"He's doing what we're asking him to do," Duffy said "Kareem is a fantastic football player. Kareem is a special player who works hard each week to get better. He is very humble and understands he is going to get his opportunities. He is a physical kid and enjoys that part. Kareem is a dangerous player at the second level.
Other seniors are P.J. Svigel at left guard Dominic Guinta at center, Steve Kozunowski at right guard and Thomas Venclauskas at right tackle. Junior Kyle Ritz is the left tackle.
Freshman Nick Urban also will see action at left guard.
"We're trying hard to stay balanced," Duffy said. "We'd like to put the ball in the air 15-22 times a game."
Defensive starters are Thomas Venclauskas and Federico at end, senior David Baxter
and sophomore Matt Schmidt at tackles, seniors Frankie Fox and Tyler Rus at linebacker plus sophomore Matt Wyatt and Lett at cornerback. Defensive backs are juniors Anthony Cvelbar and Dylan Caruso plus Andrew Venclauskas.
T.J. Green also will play outside linebacker.
"We're growing up on defense," Duffy said. "We're becoming a pretty good unit."
South's defensive unit will be put to the test.
"Chardon's offensive is different," Duffy said. "They're good at what they do, grinding out yardage and eating up the clock. We have to find a way to beat them at their game. We need to control the line of scrimmage. The game will be won or lost in the trenches."
There is no question that this is a "big game" for the Rebels. It's a key contest in their quest for the playoffs.
"There will be a lot of emotion out there on Friday night," Duffy said.
Both teams have something to prove. One is sowing seeds of respectability and greatness and the other is looking to harvest a bountiful crop.