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Ursuline wiping slate clean to begin state title run

November 8, 2013
By JOE SIMON - Tribune Chronicle (jsimon@tribtoday.com) , Underthelights

Don't think for a second that Ursuline High School coach Larry Kempe is bothered one bit by the fact his Irish enter the Division V playoffs with a below .500 record.

There are other things to focus on for a coach - and a team - with state-championship expectations year in and year out.

"We make no apologies for going in at 4-5," Kempe said. "We don't play in a league, so we don't have a conference championship to play for. Our goal every year is to put ourselves in position that we can go and have an opportunity to play for 15 weeks."

That opportunity starts this weekend.

The eighth-seeded Irish take on top-seeded Akron Manchester in a Region 15 clash at 7 p.m. Saturday in Akron. Both teams boast a tremendous amount of postseason experience. Manchester (8-2) made the playoffs for the 20th time in the past 23 seasons - including five straight appearances - while Ursuline won three consecutive state titles from 2008 to '10.

The Panthers have struggled against the Mahoning Valley over the years, going 1-6 in the postseason against area teams since 2000. Three of those losses came against Ursuline, two in which Manchester was the No. 1 seed and the Irish were No. 8 (2000 and 2002). Yet, Ursuline has been vulnerable at times this season, and Kempe knows why.

"We've had more injuries this year than I've seen on any team I've coached, probably in my career," he said. "What we've had to do this year is grow up against some very difficult opponents.

"But my big thing with our kids, and we've talked about this, is in every game we struggled in this year, we have turned the ball over multiple times. And that's an issue."

The Irish have 20 fumbles - losing 15 - and seven interceptions through nine games. They lost their final two regular season matchups, but those defeats came against perennial powers Cardinal Mooney and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. In fact, Ursuline's schedule included two undefeated teams and five playoff schools. It won't be facing a slouch in Manchester.

The Panthers average 34.3 points and 368.7 yards per game. They deploy a fairly balanced offense, but it's led by the running game, which accumulated 2,194 yards and 37 of their 48 touchdowns this year.

"They've got good size up front offensively," Kempe said. "They'll try and spread you out, and when they don't think they're successful there, they'll come out with a double-tight T (formation), which you don't see very much in football anymore. They're pretty physical up front, and they spread the ball around to their skill people."

Leading the offense is quarterback Pavin Parks, who has completed 107 of 172 passes for 1,415 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Manchester has a vast array of running backs, including Austin Klein (860 yards, 9 TDs), Mason Hayes (422, 15) and John Beavers (391, 4). The receiving corps' numbers are impressive as well, with Bobby Bowen (42 receptions, 551 yards, 3 TDs), Aaron Hoxworth (28, 427, 2) and Chandler Stahl (23, 246, 3) all contributing.

Even so, the battle-tested Irish aren't scared. Led by Michigan State-bound senior quarterback Chris Durkin, Ursuline possesses plenty of size and athleticism of its own in running backs Kimauni Johnson and Damon Green as well as receivers Ben Phillips, Vito Penza and Marcus Mosley. And, as mentioned, the Irish have seen some of the best in the business.

"Nothing anyone gives us this week should be a shock to us," Kempe said. "We went in today, and usually we give stickers for things done well during the season. I told the kids, 'Take the stickers off. You keep the Irish on the helmet. You keep the American flag and you keep a sticker that commemorates a longtime principal, athletic director and coach. We're going in and we're going back to old-school football. This is a new time.' "