CLEVELAND, Ohio — Two weeks earlier, St. Edward coach Tom Lombardo gathered his players in Lakewood.
He didn’t express disappointment after a 35-0 loss to Archbishop Hoban, which happened to be the Eagles’ most lopsided defeat in more than a decade.
Lombardo simply leveled with his players.
He somewhat expected an inexperienced offense to struggle early, so he challenged them. They answered by beating Mentor – a program that defeated the Eagles twice a year ago by a point each – six days after the Hoban loss. Eight days after that 28-24 road win in Mentor, St. Edward found itself on the right side of a shutout with Saturday night’s 17-0 win against rival St. Ignatius at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“Our tackling is really improving from where it was in Week 1,” Lombardo said. “We’re playing pretty good defense right now.”
He credited the preparation of defensive coordinator Pete Pappas. So did senior middle linebacker C.J. Hankins, the Eagles’ third-year starter who entered Week 4 as their leading tackler with 24 and contributed to three of St. Edward’s five takeaways against the Wildcats (1-1).
Hankins forced a fumble, recovered one and added a fourth-quarter interception to his effort in leading the defense of the Eagles (3-1), who are ranked second in the cleveland.com high school football Top 25.
“C.J. is in the middle of the defense,” said senior defensive end Charles Calhoun, who forced and recovered two fumbles. “He does everything the right way. He doesn’t talk. He just does what he has to do.”
Calhoun’s play has been vital, too, providing an edge rush without returning junior starter and Minnesota commit Trey Bixby. While Calhoun and Hankins are hope he can return, they’re appreciating additional contributions elsewhere.
Some are expected, such as the interceptions provided last week by Jaylen and Joel Castleberry at cornerback or the run stuffing from Caden Casto and Thomas Aden up front.
Others are breakout performances, such as junior linebacker Zyion Freer-Brown, who forced two fumbles Saturday, including a critical first-quarter play that prevented St. Ignatius from scoring inside the 5-yard line. Hankins called him one of their “up-and-coming linebackers.” He earned a starting spot next to Hankins and just may have played the best varsity game of his career.
Part of Lombardo’s challenge two weeks ago included turning to underclassmen if seniors showed complacency. Hankins credited his younger teammates for providing a boost in their two wins since then.
The magnitude of the opponents, even with playoff points a non-factor this season, had their attention. They weren’t just shut out two weeks ago. The Eagles gave up enough big plays that Hoban put a running clock on them in the fourth quarter.
That was a first for St. Edward, considering the OHSAA adopted the rule in 2014.
“It’s kind of just motivation,” Hankins said. “We can’t get embarrassed like that again. Never again.”
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