Very few experts gave the Fitch football team much of a chance in its first round playoff showdown with Cleveland St. Ignatius last Saturday night in Parma.
The second-seeded Wildcats are the defending Division I champions and had only lost once in their past 16 games heading into the battle with the seventh-seeded Falcons. Although those predictions were correct and the Falcons did succumb to the mighty Wildcats 35-26, nobody could have forecasted just how close the game really was.
Despite being a multiple touchdown underdog in some circles, Fitch never trailed by more than 14 points at any juncture of the contest. The local lads laced their cleats and went toe-to-toe with one of the most legendary schools in Ohio football history.
That demonstration of determination and guts gave Fitch head coach Phil Annarella the closest thing to a moral victory a coach can achieve after a playoff loss.
"I'm very proud of these kids," said Annarella sincerely the night after the game. "They played their hearts out and never quit."
That last statement could have summed up the entire season for the 9-2 Falcons. Fitch was forced to play all year without a conference affiliation after stepping away from the All American Conference making scheduling and earning playoff points a nightmare. The Falcons also combatted a rash of injuries leaving them without their starting running back for almost the entire season, their backup running back and starting quarterback for a few games and multiple key members of their defense at times. The silver lining to all of those ailments was that it enabled some underclass kids who Annarella will be counting on next year to gain some important varsity minutes.
"Hopefully these younger guys saw some of the things the older guys accomplished and can copy that," said the coach. "They need to build on what they did this year and keep building that important team chemistry."
St. Ignatius, meanwhile, is able to fill any open positions it has because it basically can choose kids from the entire city and suburbs of Cleveland. Even though St. Ignatius and Fitch are both Division I programs, the Wildcats can start 22 different players if they choose to during a game while the Falcons have many kids playing on both sides of the ball. That freshness was evident late in the third quarter when the Wildcats took control of the contest. Trailing 14-7, Fitch was embarking on an improbable game-tying drive. A Fitch fumble was forced and recovered by the Wildcats then subsequently turned into a touchdown that put the home team up 21-7 heading into the final frame. Still, the Falcons fought hard in a wild fourth quarter that saw them outscore Ignatius, 19-14.
"(The kids) could have packed it in after that fumble in the third quarter, but they kept getting after it," said Annarella. "I told the kids (after the game) I know there were things we could have done better, but I was proud of them for not quitting."
Certainly, the Falcons could have done better in the first half when they were held to just two first downs and zero passing yards. Only a 45-yard interception return by Tyler Grover kept Fitch from being shutout over the first 24 minutes.
"We didn't perform very well early on," said Annarella sadly. "We could have used more offense. Maybe (the offense) was thinking too much about the magnitude of the game and not enough about what they had to do."
The Falcons did things right after intermission when quarterback Matt Futkos threw for 102 yards, including touchdown strikes of 29 and 11 yards to Grover, and ran for 120 yards and a score.
Both Futkos and Grover played their final high school games last week as did a dozen other returning senior letter winners from 2011. Coach Annarella is aware that he has some quality skill position kids coming back next season to help replace some of those graduating players, but he also acknowledged how badly he wanted this bunch of Falcons to succeed this November.
"It was a joy coaching these kids," said Annarella honestly. "I just wish we could still be playing."