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Dick Cromwell might admit to being an old dog in his 34th overall season of coaching high school football, but he certainly won't acknowledge needing any new tricks to get his St. Francis de Sales team back into the state playoffs after a four-year absence.
"It's a nice experience to be back again," Cromwell said. "The kids are having fun, the coaching staff's having fun, and it's good to be a part of it again."
In this day of wide-open spread offenses, the Knights (9-1), Ohio's fifth-ranked Division II team, still rely on the old standards of disciplined football, fundamental blocking and tackling technique, the precision execution of a simple tailback-oriented offense, and the beauty of the well-timed option play or unexpected pass.
The City League's most successful coach and most accomplished program was on unfamiliar turf from 2005-08, going 20-21 overall after notching a fourth-straight City championship and sixth straight playoff appearance in 2004. That run included a Division II state championship in 2001 and a state semifinal run in 2002, and the CL title was the eighth for St. Francis in 10 seasons.
But folks around town started wondering if Cromwell and his Knights had lost their magic, and league coaches stopped automatically voting St. Francis No. 1 in the preseason polls based on the lofty reputation.
Then came the current senior class of Knights, a group headed by names like Scott Loy, Tyler Johnston, Lee Lukasik, R.J. Rios, Alex Kenzie, Shaun Solly and Pat Dyer.
Their collective mission was to stop the negative trend and restore the Knights' football honor, so to speak.
The Class of 2010 can consider that mission accomplished, although
another one begins at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow when St. Francis, the top playoff seed in Region 6, plays host to No. 8 seed and first-time playoff qualifier North Ridgeville at Whitmer.
"Our young offensive line came through, we had some seniors on defense and some seniors up the middle on offense - at center, quarterback and tailback - who certainly have done a nice job," Cromwell said. "We got some big victories when we needed them, and it's been pretty much a total team effort."
Outside of the superbly talented Loy - who has 21 catches for 471 yards and scored eight touchdowns to go with great secondary play - the Knights are decidedly more team than a collection of individuals. But Cromwell still has plenty of credit to dole out.
"Scott Loy stood out on both sides of the ball, and as a punt returner," Cromwell said. "Tyler Johnston [625 passing yards, 297 rushing] has made some big plays at quarterback, and Lee Lukasik [136 rushes,772 yards, 11 TDs] has certainly made some big plays in big games at tailback. "Defensively,
[junior DB] Danny Yodzis has had a great year, Shaun Solly at outside linebacker had a really good year, and so has R.J. Rios. But we don't really have any one standout offensively or defensively except for Loy. His numbers aren't great but he certainly poses problems for other teams."
The Knights opened the season with a 27-8 win over 2008 Division II state champion Southview at the Glass Bowl.
Week 2 brought a 14-7 win at Findlay, and the third week saw Cromwell earn his 200th win in his 26 seasons at St. Francis, a 31-18 victory over Dayton Carroll at Rogers. Next up was a thrilling 7-6 squeaker over St. John's Jesuit at the Glass Bowl, the one-point edge courtesy of Solly's block of an extra-point attempt in the closing seconds.
And, if CL followers still weren't convinced of St. Francis' re-emergence after a 5-0 start, they became believers when the Knights went to Whitmer on Oct. 2 and upset the eventual City champion Panthers 21-17.
The only blemish on St. Francis record came the following week in a 10-0 loss at Central Catholic.
Now comes a familiar setting for Cromwell and the Knights. He has led them to 13 playoff berths and a 15-10 postseason record, including the D-II state crown in 2001 and another one in D-I back in 1984. Cromwell's 1982 Knights were D-II state runners-up.
Cromwell's mission this week in practice has been generating some playoff-caliber fervor among his charges.
"Our kids haven't been overly excited or overly ready since the Central game," he said. "We had those to big games against Whitmer and Central, and then we've kind of been in a lull the past two weeks. I think we have to get back to the same excitement level of when we played St. John's and Whitmer and Central."