By CHRIS EASTERLING
Independent sports editor
During its first game of the 2013 high school football season, Highland traveled to Wooster with no clue where its path would ultimately take it. The Hornets returned with a 45-17 win.
The third game of the season, it ventured to neighboring North Royalton, still unsure of exactly what it had. The Hornets returned with a 3-0 record and a third straight
The ninth game of the season, Highland traveled to Nordonia, but this time, it had a pretty good idea of what kind of team it was. The Hornets jumped on the Knights early and held on for a 28-25 win to remain undefeated.
“We went through the season one game at a time not knowing, even from the opener, if we could win that game or not,” Highland head coach Tom Lombardo said. “The next game was the same way. As we went on, we sort of kept winning another and another. When we got to the Nordonia game, we were both 8-0. We won that one and we were like, ‘Jeez, we’re there.’ I don’t want to say it snuck up on us, but we never really thought about it as it went along except just kind of wanting to win that next week.”
Tonight, Lombardo’s team knows exactly what it is as it travels to the University of Akron’s InfoCision Stadium. It’s an 11-0 team that earned the No. 1 seed in Division II, Region 4, and is facing Massillon in arguably one of the biggest games in school history for a berth in next week’s regional
Yet, even as the Hornets prepare for the 9-2 Tigers, Lombardo will be the first to admit that when his team gathered to open two-a-days in August, the thought of playing in Round 2 of the playoffs wasn’t front and center on his mind.
“I thought the potential was there, but I never thought this,” said Lombardo, who won a state championship as Lake Catholic’s head coach in 2001. “It sounds cliché, but we tried to take it one game at a time. We started it with the doubles and the scrimmages and preparing for them and trying to play them the best we could.”
Each week, the reality that would be this year’s Highland football season came more and more into focus. Still, there always seemed to be another benchmark for the Hornets to pass, another exam for them to take, before it all solidified.
The 3-0 nonleague record was obviously good. Then came their Week 4 Suburban League opener against Wadsworth, a team that would ultimately make the playoffs in Division I.
On that night, though, it was Highland which established itself as the team with the brightest future, as it raced out to a 24-7 lead through three quarters. The Hornets held on for a 24-23 win, the only blemish the Grizzlies suffered during the regular season.
“The first three games you’re trying to figure yourself out,” Lombardo said. “Do we have everybody in the right spot? Coming into that game, we didn’t realize how good Wadsworth was or how good we’d end up being. It was just a game where it was the opener in the Suburban League and we know they’re pretty good and we think we’re pretty good, so let’s see what happens.”
That was one of only three Highland games, either in the regular season or playoffs, that was decided by fewer than 23 points. The other ones were the win over Nordonia, as well as last week’s 28-21 playoff-opening win over Avon Lake.
All three of those, though, saw Highland lead by double figures in the fourth quarter. Last week, the Hornets led 28-14 with less than two minutes left before the Shoreman scored late to trim that margin.
“Both games that were close in the regular season, we were winning 24-7 against Wadsworth and 28-10 against Nordonia in the fourth quarter,” Lombardo said. “We sort of let teams come back. We needed drives to finish it.”
Now, Highland has the opportunity for the school’s second regional-final appearance if it can beat Massillon, a team that beat Nordonia last week 33-17 in its playoff opener.
But Lombardo can’t help but think about what has made his team what it has been this season. And that’s something he feels will continue to buoy it entering tonight’s game.
“I think we’re a close-knit group,” Lombardo said. “... We’ve shown to be a resilient group, and it’s gone on through the course of the season. We’ve experienced some ups and downs and have won some close games and taken care of some games that should win the way we should. All that comes into play.”