Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
Needless to say, Friday night’s pivotal Southwestern Conference game between Westlake and Brecksville wasn’t played under the best of conditions.
A late-October wind and torrents of rain were wipping through the stands, nearly sideways at times. The puddles at Lou Duchez Field were getting larger, and the mud even deeper. The stadium scoreboard was failing well before the opening kickoff, making the time remaining in each quarter a mystery to all.
In the end, none of that mattered to anyone wearing the Green and White.
Because today, the Westlake Demons are SWC champions.
Westlake’s defense, led by Danny Strodtbeck’s first-quarter interception for a touchdown, set the tone early and shut out Brecksville’s high-octane offense. Meanwhile, the Demon running attack held up it’s end of the deal as Westlake blanked the Bees, 17-0, to win it’s first league title since 1984 and more than likely clinch a home playoff game.
The Demons, who finished the regular season at 9-1, went 6-1 in the SWC to tie Avon Lake. The Shoremen manhandled Amherst, 49-7, Friday night to also finish 6-1 and claim their official share of the championship.
Friday night’s win also clinched a Division II playoff home game for the Demons next Friday night, giving the program its first postseason appearance since 1989.
“I don’t have enough good things to say about our kids right now. It’s all them,” said a soaked, but elated Demons head coach Mark Camp following the celebration in the north end zone.
“The seniors led the way, and this team came together,” Campo said. “They showed up every day for practice and worked hard, then showed up on Friday nights and played. And they kept playing, no matter what was going on in the game.
“Our kids deserve it. I’m extremely happy for them. They’ll remember this for the rest of their lives. They’ll talk about it every time they get together, and that’s what it’s all about,” he added.
One play the Demons will remember and talk about for years to come came less than two minutes into the game. On third down and 15, Brecksville quarterback Tom tupa dropped back, looked to his right and lofted a pass toward his Brother Tim.
Waiting there instead was Strodtbeck, who picked the ball cleanly and scampered 21 yards into the end zone. Sean Bigley added the conversion kick, and the Demons had the upper hand, 7-0, with 10:22 left in the first quarter.
“I wasn’t shocked the ball was coming to me because I saw his brother coming underneath,” Strodtbeck said of his pick six. “I stuck with him all the way across, and it looked like the ball might have slipped out of Tupa’s hand just a bit.
“I think that play boosted us emotionally and really got us going. It felt great and made things a little easier for us. After that, we just kept pounding away at them,” he added.
The Demons did a lot of pounding on both sides of the football. Brecksville never made it into the red zone the entire game as the Demon defense stuffed what run game the Bees had and held Tupa to just 112 yards passing. Brecksville’s deepest penetration into Westlake territory in the first half was the 43-yard line, but a Bryan Mackenzie interception ended that threat on the first play of the second quarter. In the first half, the Bees managed just two first downs and just 27 total yards, thanks in part to a pair of recovered fumbles for 23 yards in losses.
Offensively, the Demons worked the ground game for the most part as Strodtbeck, Logan Paul and Shawn Turk carried the load. Still, it wasn’t easy as a fumble stopped a promising drive at the Brecksville 47-yard line, then a Bees punt later pinned the Demons back at their own 30yard line with 7:20 left in the half.
A seven-yard gain by Paul and another eight yards from quarterback Kent Axcell helped get the Demons away from their own end zone. Then on a second down and six, Paul took the handoff up the middle and romped all the way to the Brecksville 46.
On the very next play, Turk got the ball, broke through the Bees’ front seven and raced untouched the rest of the way for a 46-yard touchdown run. Bigley’s kick was good, and Westlake had a solid 14-0 lead heading into the locker room at halftime.
Brecksville, which was playing for a share of the SWC as well, pulled out the onsides kick to start the second half. The Bees recovered the ball at the Westlake 37-yard line, and a short run by Carlo Milano got the ball to the Demon 34.
After an incomplete pass, Tupa threw a short pass to Paul Earthen, who was hit and fumbled the slippery pigskin. Paul recovered the ball at his own 31, ending the Brecksville threat. Brecksville got to the Demon 30 late in the third quarter, but four straight incompletions stopped that drive.
With just over two minutes left in the third quarter, the Demons took over on downs. On fourth and four, they stunned the Bees and pulled off a fake punt. Punter Billy Dreher ran the pretend bad snap to perfection, and Strodtbeck rumbled up the middle for a 14-yard gain on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Westlake went on to run 12 more plays, including an 8-yard run by Axcelland a 20-yard pass completion from Axcell to Alex Massaad, who hauled in a tipped pass intended for Turk. On fourth down and eight at the 8-yard line, Bigley came in and put the icing on the championship cake with his 26-yard field goal.
With 2:48 left in the game, the celebration in the stands began. When Alex Busser recovered a Bees fumble with 2:16 left, the celebration started to spread down to the field and the Westlake bench.
After Turk registered a first down on a seven-yard run to the Brecksville 36, the Demons were in no hurry to run another play. As the play clock ran down, Axcell took the snap, dropped to a knee and the official celebration was on.
“This feels great,” Strodtbeck said. “We started this last year with basketball and baseball. It just feels awesome. Now we get to play in our first playoff game in 20, 23 years. It’s been a long time, I know that.”
Paul, who unofficially ran the ball 26 times for 100 yards, said the Demons’ championship run was built one day, one game at a time.
“At the beginning of the season Coach Campo talked about having a ladder,” he said. “We actually drew a ladder in our locker room with our opponent’s name on each rung. We took it one by one, and each week we went in there and crossed another one off.
“We had to circle North Olmsted, but every other name was crossed off, and now we’re SWC champs,” he added.
Having the early momentum in their favor was a big plus too, Paul added.
“Once Danny got that pick, the momentum was set,” Paul said. “After the first score, the rest of the game was just having fun. That’s when we play at our best. And personally, that’s when I play at my best.
“Defensively, everybody did their job tonight. We were all out there working together to stop Tom Tupa, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The conditions obviously helped, but we played well enough to stop their run and the pass,” he added.
Campo admitted he thought the 2012 season could be a special one back when training camp opened in the 90-degree dog days of August.
“We knew we had all the pieces of the puzzle,” Campo said. “We just had to see how it was going to come together. We had experience in a lot of places and players we knew we could count on. But the big thing with this group is that they got better every week.
“If you compare the film of us from the beginning of the season until now, we’re a different football team than we were in week one and two. This team has really improved, and that’s what you like to see as a coach,” he said.
Campo also said he knew the soggy conditions Friday night favored his team.
“This is our kind of weather and our kind of game. We’’re used to playing in this. We enjoy it. We said we’re just going to focus and concentrate on making sure we secure the football. If we did that and got on people, we felt we’d be successful. Tonight, we did enough to win,” he added.
Southwestern Conference Standings
1. Westlake 6-1 (9-1); 2. Avon Lake 6-1 (8-2); 3. Brecksville 5-2 (5-5); 4. North Olmsted 4-3 (7-3); 5. Midpark 3-4 (6-4); 6. Olmsted Falls 2-5 (2-8); 7. Berea 1-6 (3-7); 8. Amherst 1-6 (2-8)