Story by Jim Horvath
Photos by David Richard
The 2014 high school football season opener at Avon Lake Memorial Stadium was a matchup between two similar teams.
Avon, winners of four straight West Shore Conference championships, is again expected to contend for another WSC title. And in the Southwestern Conference, Avon Lake is always in the mix in the conference race. On top of that, both teams are favored to repeat as OHSAA DII playoff participants this fall.
But on Friday night, that's where the similarities ended.
Avon, behind the first-half air assault combo of Jake Sopko and Zack Torbert, jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. When the final gun sounded, the Eagles had another big win over their neighborhood rivals by a convincing score of 44-7.
It didn't take long for Sopko, Avon's senior quarterback, to find and get things rolling with Torbert, his 6-3 senior wide receiver.
On the third play of the game, junior linebacker Andrew Roesch recovered a Shoremen fumble at the Avon Lake 15-yard line. Sopko and Torbert hooked up just three plays later on a 10-yard scoring strike for a quick 7-0 lead
With just 2:20 gone in the game, the Eagles had already drawn a line in the sand.
Avon Lake followed with a three and out, including one of numerous illegal procedure calls that were whistled against the Shoremen on the night. The Eagles took the ensuing punt, with junior Michael Nose returning it to the Avon Lake 33.
From there, the Eagles went backwards on a sack of Sopko and and 5-yard loss on a running play. But on fourth down and 15 from the 38, Sopko found Torbert on a post pattern for Avon's second score.
Eric Sumislawski added the conversion kick, and just like that it was 14-0 Eagles with 5:27 left in the first quarter.
With plenty of game still to be played, the Shoremen went on one of their patented ball-control drives. They held the ball for the rest of the quarter, but couldn't get past their own 46. Three more penalties, two of them for illegal procedure, helped stall the drive.
A 39-yard field goal by Sumislawski made it 17-0, Eagles. But this time, Avon Lake answered.
The Shoremen went on an 80-yard, 11-play drive that concluded with an impressive 21-yard scoring run by running back Sam Klimkowski. The 6-1, 230 junior ran left, bulled through a number of Eagle defenders and fought his way into the end zone with 4:45 left in the half.
Senior Bailey Stephenson added the extra kick, and the home team was back in it at 17-7. But as Avon has done so many times before, the response came in fast and furious fashion.
Starting at their own 17, the Eagles lost two yards on their first play. But on the second play, Sopko dropped back and looked for Torbert down the right side. Torbert was covered tightly by Avon Lake's Cole Schmidt, but the 5-10 defensive back could do nothing against the 6-3 Torbert, who went up, snared the pass and raced into the end zone for an electrifying 85-yard scoring play.
"Zack is one heck of a football player," Sopko said. "He's big, and he's not hard to find because of that. It worked out that way tonight.
"On that long touchdown, I was ready to throw it, but the ball didn't look that good," he said. "But Zack just makes plays. That's what he does, jumping over people and making it look easy.
"That wasn't an easy play, but he made it look easy," he added.
"Sopko and Torbert had a great connection in the game today," said Avon head coach Mike Elder. "And we finally got Gerett Choat moving around in the second half a little bit. We're going to keep developing some new weapons and hopefully become tough to stop.
"But we're definitely a work in progress with a lot of new faces out there," he added.
Despite that influx of varsity rookies, the Eagles were firmly in control with a 24-7 lead. Avon Lake continued to move the ball, but fell victim to penalties, dropped passes and a staunch Eagle defense. And as the second half got underway, Avon's running attack started to emerge.
Choat, a junior who who had a quiet first half, scored on an 8-yard touchdown run up the middle to make it 31-7, Eagles, with 6:42 left in the third quarter. A 4-yard touchdown run off right tackle by senior Isiah Pinto with 8:26 left in the game all but sealed the deal.
The final Avon score came in the closing seconds as senior Joe Travagliante scored from three yards out. In the second half alone, Eagle running backs combined to rack up 120 yards on the ground.
"I'm really proud of our offensive line," Elder said. "These guys have listened to a lot of critics. Not from people outside our program, but within it.
"All they've done is grind it out through two-a-days and worked their butts off. I thought they did an exceptional job today of protecting the quarterback, and obviously helping us run the football there at the end.
"So hats off to those guys for the job they did tonight," he said.
Elder also had praise for his defense.
"Our defense did a great job." he said. "As a whole, I thought they ran to the football. There was a time there when we were on our heels and they were running the ball at us.
"But all in all, we did a good job of settling in. We did a much better job in the second half," he added.
On the other side of the coin, Avon Lake head coach Dave Dludosz was a man of few words. The longtime Shoremen mentor, after a taking last year off as the program's leader, was brief and concise when describing the night's events.
"We got beat in every facet of the game," Dlugosz said. "Special teams, offense, defense.
"Avon was well prepared, and we weren't as prepared as we should have been. I put most of the blame for that on myself. If we're not prepared, that's the head coach's job. We made mental errors, had misalignments, offsides and so forth.
"That's lack of preparation, and that's my fault," he concluded.
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