Cutting their teeth

Cavs hope success means a postseason berth this fall

by Aaron Garcia

After managing just four wins in two years, the Cuthbertson football team, led by (from left) Kevin McVay, Steven Stickle, Julius Stratford, Ryan Kendall, Emmitt Afam and Brian Lattimore, has a chance to earn its first postseason bid this week. (Aaron Garcia/UCW photo)

For the last two years, the final game of the regular season has been a formality for the Cuthbertson football team. While other teams in the county usually battled for playoff spots until the end of the season, the Cavs were left out of the fun, usually after being mathematically eliminated from the Rocky River 1A/2A conference race after just a few league games. In their first two years, the Cavs managed only four wins.

But this year, the final week of the regular season has renewed meaning for coach Mike Roark’s club. Rather than hoping to salvage some pride with an end-of-season win, the Cavs are smack dab in the middle of the playoff picture with a 4-2 league mark, behind only Monroe (6-0) and -Forest Hills (6-0). After trudging through a winless non-conference stretch to open the season, the Cavs have won four of their last six games. And with a win this week against rival Piedmont, they would all but guarantee themselves their first-ever playoff berth.

“That’s amazing,” said Roark. “When we sat down and talked, both as coaches and with the kids in the offseason, the goal for us was to make the playoffs. We didn’t talk in terms of wins and losses as far as numbers, but obviously to get into the playoffs, five (wins) seems to be the magic number.

“It’s fantastic to have this opportunity. It’s nice to be feeling pressure at this point in the season because it means we have a chance.”

After starting 0-4, Cuthbertson earned its first win of the season, 42-12 over Central Academy on Sept. 16.

“After we got the hang of it, once we knew we could win, it just rolled for us,” said senior defensive end Steven Stickle.

After a 56-14 loss to Forrest Hills the following week, the season truly turned. After breaking in several new players in the backfield, including running back Julius Stratford and quarterback Ryan Kendall, the Cavs’ offense began to click and bloom, and it happened at the perfect time. Furthermore, with the running game taking off, the Cavs’ passing offense benefitted, and receivers Emmitt Afam and Brian Lattimore have solidified themselves as game-breaking weapons.

On Sept. 30, facing a 21-0 first-quarter deficit to Union Academy, Cuthbertson battled back to win the game, 48-27.

“That’s when we really started to realize, ‘This is it. This is the year. We’re ready to go,’” said senior offensive lineman Kevin McVay. “We battled through adversity, we were right there in the game, and that’s when we knew we were the team to beat.”

Beginning with the win over Union -Academy, the Cavs’ offense has been downright potent; they’ve averaged 52.7 points in the last four games while winning three out of four games in that stretch.

“It really began since conference play that we as a coaching staff have kind of felt comfortable with what we can and can’t do offensively,” said Roark. “We’ve really started to find the things that worked and the identity for the offense that really suits the talents of the kids.”

But the most telling result this year didn’t come in a win for the Cavs. Rather, a 52-50 loss to league co-leader Monroe really showed the Cavs’ mettle. In the past, such a near-miss would’ve been a banner-worthy accomplishment, a nice feather in the cap for a young program.

But not this year.

The players said there was a genuine feeling of disappointment following the loss, and the sentiment that they let a good win slip away was prevalent in the locker room.

“I could care less if we lost by 50 or if we lost by two,” said McVay. “We should’ve won the game, and that’s the way it stands. That’s the way the whole team is. We don’t care about, ‘Oh, this is Monroe, they’re the fastest team in the conference. We were supposed to get blown out, but we only lost by two. Oh, well.’

“It’s in the record book as a loss. It doesn’t matter.”

The outlook on the heart-breaking loss is good sign for a program looking to make its way to the postseason for the first time.

“I think it’s a great sign,” Roark said. “Monroe is an athletic team and a well-seasoned team and they’ve had a lot of success. For us to have success against them I think was a big confidence boost for the team.”

Since then, Cuthbertson rebounded with a resounding win last week over West Stanly, 58-7. It was the highest offensive output in school history. Kendall connected for four touchdown passes, including three to Afam, while Stratford surpassed 100 yards rushing.

And as the final week’s showdown against rival Piedmont quickly approaches, the Cavs aren’t worried about getting the season over, or moving on to their winter sports. Instead, after a successful season, the Cavs are looking forward to putting it all together and making a mark in the postseason.

“It feels like (the program) has definitely turned around,” said Stickle. “There’s a whole new attitude in the locker room, a whole new perspective. Last year it was rough getting through the whole season, but this year I just don’t want it to end. We’re winning and we’re getting the hang of it.”

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