RICHWOOD – Sitting at 2-3 halfway through the season following a loss to Marion Harding, the last thing on coach Nick Hajjar’s mind was the thought of his North Union Wildcats making the state playoffs.
“We had to re-evaluate our goals, and a lot of them were gone,” Hajjar said. “We wanted to finish strong, but we did not talk about the postseason at all.”
They are now after the Wildcats made the Division V Region 18 postseason despite a record of 5-5 and a sixth-place finish in the Mid Ohio Athletic Conference’s Red Division.
“These kids never quit when they were 2-3, and they have been rewarded,” said Hajjar, who in his second season at NU has the ‘Cats in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. “A lot was out of our control. We just wanted to win and see what happened.
“The stars aligned and the numbers worked out.”
North Union wound up seventh in the region and will play at second-rated Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (9-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
The Wildcats won three of their last five games, including a 26-3 decision over a five-win Division III Buckeye Valley team in the last regular season game which provided them a ton of computer ratings points.
Hajjar pointed toward Drew Pasteur’s Ohio Fantastic 50 ratings Web site in arguing whether his team should be in the big dance or not. He said according to that site, North Union played the 11th-toughest schedule in the state in Div. V, which includes 108 teams.
North Union also defeated a seven-win Cardington-Lincoln squad and a five-win Triad club. Its losses were to three playoff teams which were either 9-1 or 8-2, to one 6-4 squad, and to a 4-6 team.
North Union went through many injuries and personnel changes as well to get to this point.
“It’s not easy when changes are made, but the kids responded and scrapped, fought and clawed with everything they had,” Hajjar said. “We were embarrassed against Galion (a 62-21 loss in Week 9), so against Buckeye Valley (in Week 10) we felt we owed it to ourselves and to our community to represent them better. That was a driving force for us as well.”
The Wildcats got the job done offensively this season behind a running game which averaged 257 rushing yards per game. Senior running back Nate Hammons led that charge with 1,098 yards and 15 touchdowns while junior Luke Krawczyk added 683 yards and 10 scores.
They didn’t throw the ball that much during the regular season, but when they did, senior Wyatt Pertuset was usually on the receiving end. Pertuset caught 20 balls for 465 yards and three TDs.
North Union has been a real monster defensively against the run this season. In the regular season, the ‘Cats defense gave up only 87.7 yards per game on the ground.
They also were pretty tough against the pass, as opposing teams gained only 110.6 yards per contest through the air.
Senior linebacker Corbin Bunsold paced the ‘Cats on defense with 80 tackles. He also led his team in quarterback sacks (six) and tackles for losses (14).
Krawczyk was next in line with 56 tackles while senior lineman Isaiah Mason had 47, including six for losses, and junior lineman Gavin Salyer totaled 45 tackles.
Those ‘Cats will definitely have their sights set on Cincinnati Hills senior quarterback Johnny Noyen, who both ran and passed for more than 1,000 yards this season.
His favorite receiver is junior Adam Baker, while 6-foot, 230-pound junior running back Kesean Gamble is a battering ram out of the Eagles backfield.
“They are a very potent football team,” Hajjar said. “They can score in a hurry. Their spread offense changes tempo and uses different formations. Up front they are big and physical, and they have good, tall athletes on the perimeter.”
Defensively, the Eagles play a 4-3 which Hajjar said they can manipulate to a five-man front.
“They pick and choose when they do blitz, and they mix coverages behind it,” he said.
Cincinnati Hills this season won 59-27 over a Cincinnati Country Day squad which struggled early in the season to beat Pleasant 42-41. That Pleasant team wound up 3-7 this year.
After losing their opener 35-28 to Division V Greeneview (7-3), the Eagles ran off nine straight wins over three D VI teams, two squads from D VII and V, and one team each from divisions III and IV.
CHCA was ranked eighth in the final Associated Press state D V poll, and the Eagles are coming off of a 13-1 season in which they made the state Final Four.
Hajjar’s team doesn’t have to contend with that squad, but he said the 2015 Eagles are still a tough bunch.
“We have to believe and make things happen,” he said. “We will have to win the turnover and field-position battles, and we will have to play hard for four quarters.”