Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Tailback High: Garza is latest standout in the St. Francis system

Before its recent pass-heavy attack led Southern California back among college football's elite, USC was once known as "Tailback U."

At Brigham Young and Miami (Fla.), quarterbacks have long been the center of attention, while Penn State became famous for its linebackers.

In the local high school ranks, like USC, the St. Francis de Sales program of 21st-year Knights head coach Dick Cromwell makes its tailback the marquee man.

They have come in all shapes and sizes, from different ethnic backgrounds, and varying degrees of speed and agility. For most, it is a one-year gig as a senior after working up through the ranks.

Typically, only St. Francis coaches know who the next tailback will be each year, and sometimes the job comes with a probationary period a few games into the season.

While there always seems to be suspense as to who will get the job, the record reveals no mystery regarding what the tailback will produce: 1,000 rushing yards.

Current tailback Robert Garza, a 5-7, 155-pound senior, is the latest in string of Knights to win the key spot in Cromwell's pro-I offensive scheme.

He has carried 143 times in six games for 637 yards, on pace to surpass 1,000 yards by season's end.

If Garza does reach 1,000, it would be the eighth straight season a Knight tailback did that.

The string began in 1997 when Ed Price gained 1,281 in 12 games. In '98, his cousin Emil Price had 1,079 in 10 games. In '99, Tony Schrader had 1,324 in 11 games. In 2000, B.J. Gall 1,615 in 11 games.

Rodney Gamby, earned Ohio Division II offensive player of the year honors in 2001 when he ran for a Knight-record 2,409 yards and 31 touchdowns in 14 games while leading St. Francis to a state championship.

Gamby's successor, Ryan Kersey, became the first two-time 1,000-yard back for Cromwell, gaining 1,643 in 13 games as a junior in 2002, and 1,299 in 11 games last year.

"They're all tough kids and they can take a beating and give a beating," Cromwell said. "That's the common denominator. None of them, other than Emil Price, had great breakaway speed. But they get the tough yards and they break tackles."

Are the athletes or the system most responsible for the streak?

"I would say it's the system," Cromwell said. "It's a tailback-oriented system. You find the right guys and couple them with the people up front and they become thousand-yard rushers.

"You know you're going to get the ball if you're the No. 1 tailback here. Every year we're looking for that guy that can carry the ball 20-25 times a game."

The coaches usually settle on a player who has earned his stripes at the lower levels, although Gamby won the job three games into the 2001 season. He had transferred in from Bedford for his senior year.

"Most of the time it's somebody coming up that you see as a freshman, sophomore that's a good running back," Cromwell said. "Nobody usually plays until their senior year as a quarterback or tailback, so the public may not know about them but most of the time we know who it's going to be. Very seldom have we been surprised."

Garza wasn't an iron-clad choice.

"He's 155 pounds and you're not sure if he's going to be the man," Cromwell said. "We had [junior] Cody Enos, who we looked at early, and [senior] Brandon Kulka played there a little bit. As the first couple games unfolded, Garza was doing the job.

"He's a tough kid. He runs hard for his size, he breaks tackles, bounces out of tackles and he's run the offense for four years, so he knows it. He knows where the cuts are going to be, and he has produced."

Garza, who attended Queen of Apostles elementary in south Toledo and played his junior high football for St, Charles Borromeo, understands the importance of his role.

"St. Francis is a running school," Garza said. "The quarterback is always your main guy on a team, but the running back at St. Francis is usually the guy who does most of the load, at least with the ball. I knew it was a big position and something you had to earn."

Garza lost his spot last Friday, at least briefly. He was pulled after fumbling twice in the first quarter. But Garza came back in the second half in the Knights' big City League rivalry game against St. John's Jesuit to pick up 154 yards on 23 carries after halftime, and scored the game-winning TD with 55 seconds remaining in a 14-7 victory. He finished with 180 yards on 28 carries.

"I think it's my vision that coach Cromwell and coach [of running backs George] Schaefer liked," Garza said. "I can see what's happening and what's going to happen."

"I've done all right so far. I haven't done as great as some [backs] of the previous years, but I think I'm finally picking it up, and our team is getting the hang of things."

In all Cromwell has had 10 players reach 1,000 yards during his two stints at St. Francis (1979-1984, 1990-2004). Tom Karpinski ran for 1,456 in 1983, Tim Kwiatkowski for 1,194 in 1991, and Charlie Harshman (a fullback) for 1,266 in 1992. Kevin Lashley was just a few yards shy of 1,000 in 1994.

"It's a tailback-oriented system with a power series and an option series," Cromwell said. "There are six of us who have been coaching together for 10-11 years now. We know the system and we haven't changed it.

"The line coaches use the same schemes and techniques year after year. The tight end coach does the same, so does running backs coach. We run the same system and things fall together. I'm not sure there's anything fancy about it. We just work very hard on the basics."

Cromwell rates Gamby as the the best tailback he's coached.

"Just because of the total season the team had and he had, you have to look at Gamby, and the fact that he played both ways," Cromwell said. "The main thing was his intensity level. It was seven days a week. He never took a practice off. He never took a play off.

"He practiced as hard on Wednesday of the first week as he did in the championship week, and he played that way in the games. He had the stuff you don't teach. He had a unique ability to know where those situations [rushing lanes] were and picked the right one about 99 percent of the time."

Contact Steve Junga at:

or 419-724-6461.

Maria Stein Marion Local and Versailles both made it to the state finals last December. Then they took different paths to their meeting Friday night.

Marion Local, which lost to Columbus Grove 28-26 in the 2003 Division VI title game then, after graduating the core of that 11-4 team, opened this year with three consecutive losses.

Meanwhile, No. 1-ranked Versailles just kept rolling along after swamping Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph 26-0 in the Division IV championship, cruising to five wins in a row this season.

When they squared off, it was supposed to be a mismatch with a bigger school with a better record setting the tempo. Yet it didn't turn out that way at all.

Marion Local scored twice in the final two minutes to pin a 22-14 loss on the Tigers, ending their 23-game winning streak.

Tyler Speelman caught a 15-yard TD pass from Ryan Stucke with 1:38 left. Marion coach Tim Goodwin then pulled off a surprise, deciding to go for two points with Stucke hitting Speelman to give the Flyers a 15-14 lead.

On the next possession Marion Local's Marc Otte picked off a pass on the 50 and returned it to the Versailles 7. Curtis Moeller scored two plays later with 1:08 left as the Flyers improved to 2-4.

ST. X MARKS THE SPOT: Chris Cionni scored on a two-yard run to lift St. Xavier past Elder 33-30 in double overtime on Friday. A sellout crowd estimated at 10,000 watched as Elder's 20-game home winning streak was snapped.

St. Xavier is 5-1 and Elder, two-time defending Division I state champion, is 4-2.

BIG NUMBERS: Javon Ringer had 372 rushing yards and five TDs as Dayton Chaminade-Julienne beat Cincinnati Purcell Marian 42-13; North Baltimore's Tyler Boyer set school records with 330 yards rushing and five touchdowns in a 52-14 win over Fostoria St. Wendelin; Josh Menendez of Chagrin Falls rushed for 316 yards on 28 carries and scored once in Chagrin Falls' 32-15 win over Perry; Leetonia ran for 543 yards on just 34 carries in a 62-13 win over Salineville Southern.

AIRBORNE EXPRESS: Finneytown's Alex Okafor had two receptions for 172 yards - TD catches of 91 and 81 yards - and another score on a 44-yard interception return in a 34-15 win over Deer Park.

RECORD RUNNER: Ryan Brinson became Canton McKinley's career rushing leader, breaking his own single-game record in the process, with 330 yards and three TDs on 23 carries in a 44-13 win over Massillon Perry.

He set the previous single-game mark of 297 against Grove City two years ago. He now has 3,109 career yards, breaking Adrian Brown's mark of 2,948 with a 76-yard run late in the first half.


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