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Kirtland defeats Lake Catholic for NEO Flag title at FirstEnergy Stadium – News-Herald

Defense wins championships, even in the high-scoring world of flag football.

In the 15 minutes of warmup time prior to his team’s matchup with Lake Catholic in the girls NEO Flag Football championship game May 3, Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde was seen putting in some new defensive schemes to combat the high-scoring Cougars.

The plan worked.

Behind a fast pass rush, tight coverage in the secondary and a late interception by Macy McIntosh, Kirtland defeated previously unbeaten Lake Catholic, 19-6, in the championship game under the lights at FirstEnergy Stadium. It’s the second year in a row Kirtland has defeated Lake Catholic for the league title, but the first time it has happened at the home of the Cleveland Browns, after the Browns organization sponsored the league and rolled out the red carpet in having all nine league teams on hand for a championship tournament night to cap the season.

“Oh, it was awesome,” McIntosh said. “Back-to-back (titles). It’s bigger this year – a lot bigger. There’s more competition and a bigger stage to perform on. We were able to do it.”

Thanks in part to a tremendous defensive effort — one which allowed a total of seven points in three games — and a McIntosh-to-Erika Zschuppe connection that has dominated the fledging league for two years now.

After a scoreless first half, Kirtland erupted for three touchdowns in the second half. Lake countered with one of its own, but had trouble solving the smothering defensive set LaVerde concocted just prior to the game’s start.

“Since we don’t practice, we had to talk about some things before the game,” LaVerde said. “We should probably practice more. But they all play softball, track and year-round soccer, so there’s not a lot of time. We had a couple minutes before the game to talk about some things, and I think it helped us.”

Lake coach Dan Brugh couldn’t disagree.

“They changed up coverages on us a little bit,” he said. “It was hard finding a good rhythm on offense tonight for us.”

After a scoreless first half, Kirtland got on the board in the third when lefty McIntosh threw a deep spiral to Zschuppe — an All-American soccer player — for a touchdown. But Lake answered right back when Mia Sassano found Shelby Nagy down the sideline for a score to knot the game, 6-6.

Kirtland took a 13-6 lead when Gianna Cantini connected with McIntosh in the corner for a short scoring strike, with a one-point conversion pass extending the lead a little further.

Lake threatened to score late in the second half, but McIntosh skied high for the interception.

“My heart was racing. I had to get it,” McIntosh said. “I didn’t know if I should (intercept it or) knock it down.”

The Hornets scored again right after that, with McIntosh again connecting with speedy Zschuppe for another score and an insurmountable 19-6 lead.

“They hit a couple of deep balls on us,” Brugh said. “They have a really fast girl (Zschuppe) we knew we had to try and keep in front of us.”

Which is easier said than done.

Zschuppe also had two touchdown receptions in last year’s title game at Jerome T. Osborne Stadium.

“Throw it as far as you can and see if she can get it,” said LaVerde with a laugh on Zschuppe pass routes.

McIntosh didn’t disagree.

“Anywhere I put it, she’ll find it,” she said of the Hornets’ speedy receiver.

Lake ran a nice two-minute drill in an attempt to get back in the game, but time ran out before they could reach the end zone. The Hornets celebrated by dousing LaVerde with an ice-water bucket.

“It’s nice. We needed it,” Zschuppe said of the victory over Lake, which avenged a 13-12 loss at the start of the season. “We wanted to beat them so bad.”

Johnny Stanton, fullback for the Browns, handed out medals to Lake and Kirtland, while the Hornets took home the championship trophy. Fellow Browns Jacoby Brissett and Isaac Rochell were also on hand for the festivities.

All nine teams ran out of the tunnel after being announced prior to the tournament’s start. The scoreboards and stadium were lit, music blared and fans cheered.

“It was a great night,” Brugh said. “The girls had a blast. Congratulations to Kirtland on a great game in the championship. Thank you to NEO Flag for everything. We appreciate it.”

LaVerde showered praise on NEO Flag and the Browns as well. It was a night, he said, no one will soon forget.

Hoisting a championship trophy — something LaVerde teams are used to — was just part of it.

PHOTOS: High school girls flag football championship, May 2, 2022

“I couldn’t believe it. When we walked out here and saw the fields lined …” LaVerde said of the field’s setup. “The Browns put on an A-plus product. I can’t say enough about what they’ve done for girls flag football in the area.”

PHOTOS: High school girls flag football championship, May 2, 2022

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