History in the making
No. 1 Big Red still has plenty to play for before playoffs start
STEUBENVILLE — Big Red already has locked down a home game for the opening round of the Division IV, Region 13 playoffs. Reno Saccoccia’s club, however, still has plenty to play for in its regular season finale Friday against University School.
With a victory against the 7-2 Preppers, who have qualified for the Division III, Region 10 postseason, Big Red can become the 21st team in program history to finish the regular season unbeaten. In addition, Steubenville has a shot at earning the school’s seventh AP poll championship.
Steubenville remains number one in this week’s Div. IV poll. In 2015, Big Red entered Week 10 as the poll leader and won its final game. However, Steubenville fell in the rankings and was denied the AP trophy.
The kick for the first-ever meeting between Big Red and University School, based in Hunting Valley near Cleveland, is set for 7 p.m.
“As far as I’m concerned, our main goal for Friday is this: I want every player to have his best game and us a team to have our best game,” Saccoccia said earlier in the week. “That’s what I’ll be stressing to our guys. If that happens, it would be a great way complete the regular season.”
The Preppers are coached by Ben Malbasa, the son of Steubenville native Steve Malbasa. U.S. is riding a six-game win streak.
“The mission of our football program is to prepare and train to compete to become champions,” Malbasa said. “Playing Big Red at Harding Stadium is an occasion to test our training and preparation in the best atmosphere in the state against the best-run program in the state.
“Having spent summers with my grandmother in Steubenville playing touch football games on the practice field and having spent many fall Friday nights watching Big Red football, the reality is that our program is, in many ways, modeled on Big Red.”
Before taking over at University School, his alma mater, Malbasa coached at Chardon Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin, Cleveland Benedictine and Elyria Catholic. He brought his Bengals to Harding Stadium several seasons ago.
“Our sense of tradition, ‘the eye of the past’ that we believe watches us, our knowledge that there are those who are humble and those who will be humbled, and even our pre-game jumping jacks that end with players yelling ‘U-S football pride’ are subtle nods to the role that Big Red football and coach Saccoccia have played in shaping our approach to the game,” he said.
University has defeated Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph, Maple Heights, Cleveland Central Catholic, Gilmour Academy, Parma, Ashtabula Lakeside and Garfield Heights. The Preppers were defeated by unbeaten Bay Village Bay and NDCL, which sports a 7-2 record.
“This is as solid and talented football team,” Saccoccia said of University. “Their coach has a passion for football and a passion for coaching. It looks like his kids play with the same passion. We definitely will have to be ready for this challenge.”
University’s offense averages 394 yards per game (167 passing and 227 rushing) and 32 points. The offense is directed by senior quarterback Jayden Cunningham, who has given a verbal commitment to play football at Youngstown State University.
Cunningham (6-2, 180 pounds) has completed 110-of-197 passing attempts for 1,501 yards and 17 touchdowns. He’s been intercepted three times. As a runner, he has 158 carries for 840 yards and 11 scores.
“Every Steubenville fan will recognize Jayden when they watch him play,” Malbasa said. “He is our Zach Collaros. He is the most remarkable player I have coached. And yes, that includes Mike Roberts who currently is with the Detroit Lions and Jerome Baker who plays linebacker for Ohio State.
“After our shaky start, we began playing Jayden at safety and has recorded seven interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns in seven games on defense.”
He rushed for four touchdowns in last week’s 38-21 victory over Garfield Heights to help his team clinch a playoff spot.
“He’s the best quarterback we’ve gone against this year,” Saccoccia said. “He’s definitely a dual threat; he’s a strong runner and an outstanding passer. He’s the team’s second leading rusher, dividing attempts with the tailback (senior Joe Kadlic). When it comes the passing game, he spreads it out well.”
Kadlic (6-0, 190) has run for 915 yards on 167 carries and scored eight times.
Junior Jack Voudouris (6-3, 180) and sophomore Nic Pujolas (5-9, 160) have 25 catches each to lead the Preppers. Voudouris has 406 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, while Pujolas has compiled 374 yards and scored five times.
Cunningham and Kadlic have connected 21 times for 133 yards and two touchdowns, while junior Jake Kapp (6-3, 185) has 17 catches good for 306 yards and three scores.
University’s offensive line includes senior Nick Kosir (6-2, 215), junior Alex Miller (6-0, 225), senior Michael Cassese (6-2, 225), senior Bastien Weisbein (5-11, 220) and senior Mikey Fedeli (5-11, 210). Senior Camryn Hubbard (6-1, 240) starts at tight end.
“The offensive line is solid,” Saccoccia said. “The same five guys have played in all 10 games, so that certainly has helped the offense succeed.”
Defensively, the Preppers surrender 184 rushing yards per game, 105 through the air and 23 points.
Senior linebacker Lewis Allen leads U.S. in tackles with 65, while Kevin Douglas, another senior linebacker, has 53. Hubbard has four sacks from his defensive end position.
“They have solid players in the box on defense and really good athletes outside of the box,” Saccoccia said. “They play a cover four and do a really good job of it.”
Malbasa’s defense will be looking to slow down a Big Red offense averaging 446 yards per game (293 coming on the ground) and 39 points.
Javon Davis has thrown for 1,327 yards and 14 touchdowns, while completing 69 percent of his passes. Johnny Agresta has 27 receptions for 343 yards to lead Big Red. Gino Pierro is next with 23, while Jonathon Blackmon and DaJuan Jones have 14 apiece.
Jacob Bernard leads Big Red’s stable of running backs with 771 rushing yards (he averages 6.5 yards per trip) and 15 touchdowns. After his 296-yard performance against Cardinal O’Hara, sophomore Tayveon Crawford now has 516 rushing yards.
Malbasa said his Preppers have been operating with a must-win mentality since Week 4.
“We certainly had high hopes for this season after reaching the second round of the playoffs last year and returning a very dedicated senior class” he said. “Early losses to Bay Village and NDCL gave us a must-win mentality beginning in Week 4.
“Our senior captains (Cunningham, Douglas, Cassese, Hubbard and Fedeli) deserve the credit for creating an edge at our practices and in the locker room. Their teammates responded. Kadlic and Allen certainly deserve similar credit. Their level at high-impact positions has been essential to our success.”
Prior to Friday’s kick, Big Red will honor its 20 seniors.
“We’ll salute our seniors for their contributions to the Big Red football program,” Saccoccia said. “We appreciate their efforts, no matter how much they have played. We appreciate everything they have given us.
“Hopefully, we can give them something back by coaching and playing our best game of the year and allow them to be part of history to complete a 10-0 record.”
¯ University School has the oldest high school football program in Ohio. It played its first game on Oct. 25, 1890. U.S. has 647 all-time victories and an all-time winning percentage of .627.
¯ Thanks to last week’s victory over Cardinal O’Hara, Big Red now has 800 all-time victories and trails just Massillon and Canton McKinley for the most wins in Ohio football history. Steubenville began playing football in 1897.
¯ University School was the first non-boarding, independent prep school in the country, so late 19th century sports writers in Cleveland nicknamed the team the Preppers, and the name stuck. Malbasa noted the story has some similarity to the origins of Big Red after coach Punque Cartledge dressed his team in new red uniforms.