On Monday, Nov. 2, the La Salle football team held a team meeting. A gut check was more like it.
The Lancers had just lost to Elder 21-7 three days before in Week 10 at Lancer Stadium. La Salle had put up 40-plus points in each of its previous two games at home. Momentum was seemingly in its favor.
But, the loss to Elder was tough to swallow. The opportunity to share a Greater Catholic League South division championship slipped away that final night of the regular season.
But, despite the sour ending to the regular season, La Salle coach Jim Hilvert saw an learning opportunity for his squad.
The message was simple: The Lancers had to turn up the intensity another level in the postseason.
Oh, how the players responded.
With the onset of December, the Lancers have certainly risen to the challenge and are on the doorstep of another state title.
“I think our guys have been battle-tested all year,” Hilvert said Monday. “I think every loss we had during the season – we learned from that loss. We’ve had a different focus and intensity. We prepare during the week by having that 1-0 mentality – by having something to prove and a chip on their shoulder.”
La Salle (12-2) plays Massillon Perry (12-2) in the Division II state final at 8 p.m. Friday at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. The Lancers will try to become the first Division II team to repeat as state champions since St. Marys Memorial in 1992 and ’93.
The game will be televised live on SportsTime Ohio. In Southwest Ohio, the games will be televised on Time Warner Cable channel 99 and channel 1311 HD.
The game will be heard live on Cincinnati’s WSAI-AM (1360).
“I think our kids have been working,” Hilvert said. “We need to continue to do that. We have to go out and play our game.”
That’s the mentality La Salle has brought each playoff game. Fans have come to expect plenty from this talented team. But, the Lancers assume nothing. They stay hungry regardless of the opponent.
Last week, La Salle was proclaimed the underdog by Hilvert to state ranked No. 1 Perrysburg. The Lancers, ranked No. 25 nationally in the USA Today Computer Rankings, had to rally from a halftime deficit for the first time this postseason.
The Lancers aced yet another test of character.
“Our guys did not want to go home,” Hilvert said. “I think our guys handled it very well.”
Hilvert likes the way the seniors haven’t been complacent. La Salle has 24 seniors, including 22 that were on the 2014 state championship team.
La Salle senior quarterback Nick Watson has thrown for 1,594 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s rushed for 621 yards and eight touchdowns.
La Salle senior running back Jeremy Larkin (UC commit) – the Associated Press Division II state co-offensive player of the year – has rushed for 1,829 yards and 28 touchdowns entering Friday. He has 27 receptions for 639 yards and eight touchdowns.
The offensive line has been the “unsung hero,” according to Hilvert. La Salle senior Luke Doerger (Toledo) and junior Thayer Munford have played well.
La Salle senior linebacker Hayden Jester (106 tackles), junior running back/strong safety Jarell White (413 yards and seven touchdowns/75 tackles) and senior linebacker Kyle Farwick (72 tackles) are among the statistical leaders on defense.
Senior punter/kicker Drue Chrisman (Ohio State) is a lethal weapon for field position and kicking distance and will play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January.
Friday night, the Lancers will play Massillon Perry for the first time. La Salle is favored but it hasn’t faced a Wing-T team this season. The Lancers’ defense must stay disciplined.
The Lancers want to take care of business by being physical and playing fast. “Lancer Football” for all four quarters is what Hilvert emphasizes.
Massillon Perry is making its first state final appearance. The Panthers have been to the playoffs seven times including a Division I state semifinalist in 2000.
“They are a tough football team,” Hilvert said. “They are well-coached. They will lay it on the line.”
Senior running back Keishaun Sims was named the Associated Press Division II state co-offensive player of the year with Larkin on Monday afternoon. Sims, who has Mid-American Conference offers, has rushed for 3,108 yards and 42 touchdowns. He’s also the leading special teams returner (289 yards on kickoff returns and 139 on punt returns).
“He rests at halftime and after the game,” said Perry coach Keith Wakefield, who is in his second stint at Perry after he spent 21 years at the school prior to being an assistant at Mount Union. “I’ve never coached a kid quite like him. He’s fun to be around.”
Sophomore quarterback Max Baker has thrown for 604 yards and six touchdowns. Junior running back Tevion Cleveland has rushed for 974 yards and seven touchdowns. He is also the team’s leading receiver with 24 receptions for 386 yards and four touchdowns.
Wakefield said the battle in the trenches will be key. The Panthers want to burn some clock to shorten the game against the Lancers.
Fatigue may also play a factor in the second half for the Panthers as it has multiple players going both ways.
Wakefield has been impressed with La Salle on film and knows the Panthers must give a high effort to compete.
“They play a tough schedule,” Wakefield said. “Playing in that Cincinnati Catholic league, they are well-tested.”