FEATURE from steubenvillecentralcrusaders.com, published 10/9/2013

A 20th Anniversary Tribute to the 1993 State Football Champions

Written by Mario Annibaldi

The ability of a team to overcome adversity is both a test of character and a measuring stick of their ultimate success. No team displayed these qualities better than the 1993 edition of the Steubenville Catholic Central football team. A slow start, mistakes and key injuries at inopportune times that would have derailed lesser teams only served to strengthen their resolve on the way to the 1993 Ohio Division V state football championship. As tight end David Riley put it, "We won as a team and overcame significant adversity to do it. Someone was always there to pick up the other guy when he fell."

This is the story of their journey from Junior Crusaders to state champions. 

The Team Comes Together

The Junior Crusaders program started in 1985, as dwindling enrollment forced the disbanding of the parochial league of Catholic grade school teams in the Steubenville area. This was the first exposure of kids to Central football, and prepared them for the challenges of high school athletics. As quarterback and safety Mike Orlando stated, "The program was fantastic. There was brotherhood and camaraderie. We learned discipline and hard work. It was a very positive experience."

The 1989 Junior Crusaders, comprising future juniors and seniors on the 1993 team, was among the smallest in size and numbers at the time. While not displaying a great record at 3-3, they demonstrated their ability to come together to achieve a common goal. As Riley explained, "We started 1-3, then just focused on being 3-3."

The next year the new freshmen produced a 7-1-1 record despite having only 15 members. Having barely enough players to field a team had some positive effects, as it brought the team together and reinforced a key element of teamwork – selflessness. Wide receiver and cornerback Shannon Kuchinski described it well, noting "Everyone played a role. The sole goal was to win."

Assistant coach Frank Spence saw potential in at least one player. "Everyone panicked when the Junior Crusader quarterback didn’t go to Central. But you knew that Mike Orlando would be a good quarterback. He was just a gifted athlete." Assistant coach Mike Lemal spoke of another of Orlando’s strengths. "You can’t find a better leader to build a team around. He’s the best leader I’ve been around in nearly 30 years of coaching." 

1991 and 1992 Seasons

The 1991 team, under new head coach Gregg Bahen, finished the regular season with an 8-2 record after starting 7-0, and became the second team in school history to make the playoffs in football. The Crusaders made it to the semi-finals where they lost to Warren JFK, 48-0.

Several sophomores saw action during the season. Orlando and Donald Thorn played on special teams and Wintersville transfer Mike Kuczykowski became the regular place kicker. Recalling the semi-final game, Coach Spence said, "In the fourth quarter, we played a lot of young kids, and just being in that atmosphere was a positive."

Players and coaches alike felt that experiencing a playoff run was beneficial. Orlando believed that "it allowed us to see that winning a state championship at Central was possible." Riley agreed: "We learned about how to go deep into the playoffs." According to Coach Lemal, "Success breeds success. They had a front seat for what it takes to move on in the playoffs."

Midway through the 1991-92 school year, another key player came on board as Jason Bias transferred from Steubenville High School. Bias saw some familiar faces on his new team. "Mike Orlando, Michael Kuczykowski and I played together in the Pee-Wee League as nine year olds."

In reference to the additions of Kuczykowski and Bias, Coach Lemal said, "They were a huge asset. They added physical and mental toughness. They hit harder in practice than they were hit during games. I had to tell them to tone it down."

The 1992 team had a new offensive line, consisting entirely of seniors. In the sixth game, Mike Orlando was installed at quarterback. Central lost that game at Bellaire, but they reeled off four straight wins to close the season with a 7-3 record. Unfortunately, it was not good enough to qualify for the playoffs. Said Orlando, "We were really clicking, winning the last four games. There was definitely some carry over there. It fueled the fire that we wanted to get back into the playoffs." One of the victories was against city rival Steubenville, the first time since 1980. According to Coach Lemal, "Beating Steubenville had a huge positive effect on getting us ready for the big stage."

Other juniors played important roles. Thorn led the team in rushing, Bias and Kuczykowski started at linebackers, and Kuczykowski returned as place kicker.

With a great deal of momentum heading into the next season, everything pointed to a successful 1993 campaign.

In April 1993, tragedy stuck the Crusader family. Joe Prest, a quarterback on the 1989 and 1990 teams, died accidentally. Prest was an extremely popular student-athlete and a role model to members of the current team. Riley said, "We realized we had an opportunity to go far and Joe’s death made us appreciate that opportunity." He and Kuczykowski would visit Prest’s grave before each game in the coming season.

Entering the 1993 Season

The players and coaches had high expectations for the new season. Said Kuchinski, "Our goals were to win the state championship, then win the city championship. I don’t think anyone expected a state or city championship, but we believed it was possible." Bias agreed: "The expectation was that we would go all the way. I thought we would win it all." Coach Lemal said at the time, "I don’t think we’re going to win it. I know we’re going to win it."

Despite the enthusiasm, there were significant holes to fill. Most notably, the offensive and defensive lines from a year ago had graduated. Coach Lemal described the challenge as follows. "We knew we had talent on the line but they were green. Once they got some experience, they meshed together and did a nice job." Coach Spence concurred. "A question mark was the offensive line. It was an entirely new line." He added, "We had some pretty good skill people." He was referring to the returning backfield of Orlando and Thorn, along with Kuchinski and talented underclassmen junior Dave Connor and sophomore Benji Clause.

Clause had been a quarterback since seventh grade, but he was realistic about his role for the season. "I knew I wouldn’t be the quarterback. I was just happy to play any position. I asked, ‘Where can I contribute?’"

The new offensive line consisted of Carlo Canella, Jason Angelica, Brian Fellows, Ron Clark and Larry Chambers. Riley held the tight end position. Connor, Kuchinski and Clause were the wide receivers. Kuczykowski was the new fullback.

Defensively, Angelica, Carmine Montana were flanked on the line by ends Fellows and Chambers. Bias, Thorn and Kuczykowski returned as linebackers. Kuchinski and Connor were the cornerbacks, Orlando returned at strong safety and Robbie Bodo filled out the defensive backfield.

Clause won the kicking job, and Orlando would handle punting.

1993 – The Regular Season

First up for the Crusaders was a tough Campbell Memorial team. A number of Central’s coaches scouted the team at a scrimmage and were impressed with what they saw. One of them, Coach Spence, described their reaction. "Nobody said a word for the first ten minutes during the scrimmage." That would be an accurate assessment, as the Red Devils would roll up nearly 250 yards on the ground and limit the Crusaders to fewer than 100 yards of total offense on their way to a 20-7 victory.

Looking back, Coach Spence said, "We had a little trouble with their speed and size. That was one of the better teams we had ever played up to that point." Coach Lemal agreed. "We knew they would be a load. They were definitely the most physical team we played." He added, "Had we played them later in the season, it might have been a different outcome. In talking to other coaches, that was the consensus."

Central traveled to Lisbon next to take on Beaver Local and returned with a 41-0 win. As Riley recalls, "The offense was sputtering, but mid-first quarter, Kucz breaks a trap and after that we were off to the races." Clause noted, "We had never been a passing team, but with Dave Connor, there were some big pass plays. We were able to open up our offense and add another element." One of those plays was an 86 yard pass from Orlando to Connor. This was according to plan, as Coach Spence explains: "We wanted to get a better mix of pass and run. We started to pass more." Coach Lemal summed things up well. "From the looks on their faces, they were completely shocked at how good we were."

Central was back on the road at Martins Ferry for week three. Coach Spence describes how the game unfolded. "We moved the ball up and down the field in the first half and didn’t score. Dave Callopy, the freshman coach, told me at half time, ‘I think they’re ripe for a play action.’ Mike Orlando hit Dave Connor on a play action pass for a touchdown." That was the first play of the third quarter, and the two connected again later in the period on an 81 yard score. Bias added a late score, and the Crusaders took the Purple Riders, 21-0.

Next on the schedule was the homecoming game against Linsly. Thorn led a balanced attack with three touchdowns, and Clause returned a punt for a 75 yard touchdown. Central won again, this time by a 40-0 score. The Steubenville Herald-Star displayed the headline "Central’s Hurling Shutouts."

In these last three games, Central outscored the opposition 102-0 and out-gained them by an average of 331 to 170 yards, while the defense forced twelve turnovers – four interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. Kuchinski said, "The defense came together in those games. The offensive line started to gel. We played as a unit." Coach Spence remarked, "We were hitting our stretch. We were putting it together. Linsly coach Terry Depew said, ‘They were always a tough team. But this team has skill people in addition to the toughness.’"

The 51st annual city rivalry game with undefeated Steubenville Big Red was the next challenge. The games were always hard-fought and usually close. As evidence of this, Big Red won eleven of the thirteen games from 1980 through 1992, but the average score was only 15-7. This game would live up to the standard of those games and more.

Trailing 14-7 late in the game, Central took the lead with 3:35 remaining on a 29 yard fourth down pass from Orlando to Clause, and then successfully converted a two point conversion to take the lead. Clause noted, "At that point we thought we had them. We did shut them down in the second half." Indeed they did, as Big Red had not taken a snap in Central territory in the half. On a third down play, Jason Vein hit Mario Constantini on a screen pass that went for 63 yards and the go ahead touchdown, and Big Red would win the game 20-15. Kuchinski recalled, "We had an extra defensive back, and they still scored a touchdown. It was a heartbreaker, but we didn’t give up after that. We gained confidence that we could play with anyone." Bias added, "It was a massive emotional swing in just 2.2 seconds." Coach Spence called it "a disappointment. It was one of the few years that we would have been favored to win."

Despite the disappointment, players in looking back understood the significance of the loss. Orlando said, "We had to lose that game. It brought everything into perspective - that we still have to work for everything." Riley agreed, saying, "I don’t believe we would have won the state championship if we had won that game. We had to lose that game."

The Crusaders had no opportunity to relax, with an undefeated Bellaire team coming in the next week. Clause noted, "It was good that we had a tough team in order to put the Big Red game behind us." But with two losses in their first five games, the season was on the line. At the time, only four teams from each region got into the playoffs. The 1991 team with two regular season losses made it in 1991, while the 7-3 team the next season missed the cut. Although other factors contribute to the computer rankings, another loss could be disastrous. (In fact, it was later proven that Central needed the points from a victory over an eventual 8-2 Bellaire team in order to qualify for the playoffs.) Coach Lemal stated, "We knew we had to run the table to get in." Coach Bahen at the time said, "If we don’t beat Bellaire, we may not win again. If we beat Bellaire, we will not lose again."

The game itself was a classic in which the teams traded leads to the very end. After Bellaire took a 16-14 lead late in the third quarter, Central replied with a 45 yard kick return by Clause and a 28 yard run by Kuczykowski to set up a one yard Bias touchdown and a 22-16 lead. But the Big Reds were undeterred as they took the ball inside Central’s one yard line with a first and goal. Central proceeded to turn back the visitors’ high powered offense on four rushing attempts, the last on a roll out left by sophomore quarterback Jose Davis. Bias observed, "Stopping them on a goal line stand was big. You don’t see that very often in high school. Usually they’ll find a weakness somewhere, but we didn’t have any weaknesses."

On their next possession, Bellaire drove 92 yards to take a 23-22 lead on a Scott Coyne reception. With only 1:47 remaining, Central methodically drove down the field in a spectacular display of mental toughness. As Coach Lemal recalled, "We knew the season was on the line. We needed to get a first down and get out of bounds. I believe it was fourth and short. We ran a sweep and Donald Thorn got a first down and got out of bounds." Another play took the ball to the Bellaire 20 with seconds left on the clock and Clause set up for a 35 yard field goal attempt. Looking back, he admits, "I was disappointed that Scotty Coyne beat me for a touchdown, but was just looking to do anything to make up for that mistake." The ball sailed through the uprights and Central prevailed, 25-23. Clause described the game winner in this way: "I prepared myself for it. I was surprisingly calm. It was one of the cleanest kicks I’ve ever made."

Week seven brought newly consolidated Indian Creek to Harding Stadium. That game marked a shift in the offensive line as Fellows moved to tight end and junior Jim Menendez took over at tackle. Riley, no longer a starter, showed a team-first attitude when he stated, "This brought a considerable amount of size to the line as I weighed 165 pounds soaking wet." Central notched their fourth shutout of the season, 27-0.

Central knocked off their next three opponents, defeating Chardon Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin 34-14, Coshocton 29-14 and Toronto 27-8. The Crusaders had punched their ticket to the playoffs with an 8-2 record.

1993 – The Playoffs

Central was matched with 9-1 East Knox in the first round game at Dover. Coach Lemal described their opponent: "They were a big physical team. We knew it would be a battle. They tried to batter you with their big running back." That running back was Casey Beckett, who weighed in at 250-260 pounds. The strategy for stopping him, according to Coach Lemal, was to "stress gang tackling. If you’re the first guy, take him on low and hold on."

Beckett had a strong first half, piling up 119 yards and two touchdowns, as East Knox took a 14-12 lead into half time, but he would get only 32 yards in the second half.

Part of the reason was Kuchinski, who called his effort "my best game defensively. I had a couple of big tackles in the backfield." Stopping East Knox meant stopping Beckett, and Riley recalled a key tackle when "Shannon Kuchinski dropped him and that set the tone for the rest of the game."

One Crusader found a particularly innovative way to slow Beckett. Let Riley tell the story. "Jason Angelica hits Beckett followed by Thorn and this knocked his ear pad out. Kucz picks up his ear pad and stuffs it down his pants. This is third down and their coaches are screaming ‘It’s in his pants!’ He had to miss a play. After the game, Kucz dances around with the ear pad in the locker room we shared with the officials."

Meanwhile Central’s offense kept them in the game. Thorn scored twice. Coach Spence, describing the first touchdown, said, "Mike Orlando made a great play on an option pitch to Donald Thorn, and he went for about 50 yards." The Bulldogs held the lead until early in the fourth quarter, when Central marched down the field, fueled by a 42 yard run by Kuczykowski. Orlando scored from one yard out, and after a two point conversion, the Crusaders led 20-14. Central stopped a last gasp drive to preserve the win.

Central’s next opponent was Lorain Clearview, described as an athletic finesse team. The Crusaders built an 18-0 lead in muddy conditions at Canton. Coach Spence describes one of the scores: "Benji Clause went wide on a curl route. Then Dave Connor started short, then went deep for a touchdown. We had a chance to go for a home run and it worked out for us."

Clearview rallied to close the lead to 21-14 on a long pass to conclude the scoring. Despite the win, the team was not entirely satisfied. Riley remembers, "The mood in the locker room was disappointment that we didn’t handle that team better and let them score those points late." Coach Lemal felt that "even though the score doesn’t show it, we had that game under control. It wasn’t the nail-biter that the other games were."

Zanesville was the site for the semi-final match against Newark Catholic, a program rich in tradition and owners of a 12-0 record. In a game played in cold, steady rain on a muddy field, the Green Wave scored first, less than three minutes into the contest, after recovering a fumble at Central’s 23 yard line. Orlando noted, "They scored early and we could have folded, but we didn’t." Central moved ahead 12-8 on a pair of Orlando touchdown passes. The second, a 50 yard strike to Connor, was described by Coach Spence this way. "They started to creep up. Mike Orlando pump faked and hit him." Newark Catholic replied with a score of their own early in the final period to lead 15-12.

Central countered with a 65 yard drive, keyed by a spectacular 37 yard over-the-shoulder catch by Thorn, a play called by Orlando "one of the best catches in school history." Coach Spence added, "It was third and 12. He made an over-the-shoulder catch looking up with rain and snow coming down in his face." The Crusaders scored to take the lead 19-15.

With Central facing a fourth down at mid field with four seconds remaining, one more bit of drama was in store. As the team lined up in punt formation, Orlando took the snap intending to run the clock out. Instead he ran backwards and threw the ball in the air, and a fan touched the ball in bounds near Central’s goal line. He explained, "My mind reverted to basketball." Coach Lemal related the emotions at that instant: "I was so nervous that we may have blown it. There was a big huddle with the referees." The officials ruled the game over, as the ball was touched by a fan with no time remaining. Central would be going to the finals.

The Final

The Division V final game was set for December 3rd at Massillon against Liberty Center. On preparing for the game, Coach Spence noted, "There wasn’t anything extra. It was just another game. We had very focused and good practices, just like we did all year." Bias told of the feeling in the air: "You really can’t describe the feeling. You’re sky high for a week. It’s the most amazing experience." Coach Bahen left a letter in the seniors’ equipment basket after the last practice, which according to Riley "basically thanked us for our leadership and commitment and told us we owed it to ourselves to have the last chapter of our story written the way we wanted it. He also wanted to be the first to call us ‘state champions.’" Orlando remembered the build up to the game. "We didn’t change a thing. We drove up to Massillon in a yellow school bus. It was business as usual. Routine is important."

Those school buses definitely were part of the routine. Central rode to each playoff game in them, a departure from charter buses under the previous head coach. Another routine occurrence was that the bus, led by a sheriff escort, arrived late for each game. The ride to Massillon was no different.

Central was plagued by three turnovers in the first half. Two occurred in rapid succession in the middle of the half in a sequence of series deep inside Crusader territory. The Tigers were stopped on a fourth down at Central’s four yard line when Fellows forced an incomplete pass. Thorn fumbled on the 11, but Kneier intercepted to put the ball on the 15. Liberty Center then intercepted and returned it to the 13, and this time they put the ball in the end zone to draw first blood. Orlando said, "They scored first. I remember their fans chanting ‘We want more.’" Central answered with a 14 yard touchdown from Orlando to Kuczykowski, in a drive fueled by key blocks by Riley, and the score was tied 7-7 at the intermission. Bias remembered the first half as "a lot of friggin’ turnovers. I was upset. We played the whole first half inside our own 20 yard line."

The score remained that way well into the fourth quarter. Liberty Center was threatening inside Crusader territory but Orlando intercepted in the end zone. Two plays later, Orlando ran a draw up the middle, then broke to the right sideline and raced to a 67 yard touchdown. Coach Spence said, "We called a quarterback draw. He followed the lead block, and he just made a great play." Liberty Center was not through, however. They again drove down field but were stopped on the 10 as Central’s defense stiffened. After picking up 9 ½ yards in three plays, the Crusaders were faced with fourth and less than one on their 19 yard line. Coach Bahen came into the huddle and called an optional fake from punt formation, with the short man Kuczykowski making the determination. "Green or red. Knowing Kucz, I knew he would call green," said Orlando. Kuczykowski indeed did call for the fake, took the short snap, but he came up short. Liberty Center had one more chance with 46 seconds remaining. On the fifth play from scrimmage, they scored, and then converted the extra point. The final game was going to overtime, and Central had yet another opportunity to overcome adversity.

Liberty Center won the coin toss and chose to defend on the first series. Central ran an option pass off a reverse by Clause, but he was injured on the play. "I took a good shot," he recalls. This was not good news as he was their normal kicker, and with a fourth down and goal from the seven, a 24 yard field goal attempt was the safest way to put points on the board. Fortunately, they had Kuczykowski, their kicker the previous two seasons, available. But he had not kicked all year, though he was willing, famously asking "What about me?" to Coach Bahen, who had entered the huddle during a time-out. "It wasn’t a good snap. Mike did a good job of taking the snap," said Riley. "He drilled that sucker," Coach Lemal said of Kuczykowski’s kick that put Central ahead. Kuchinski praised the effort, saying, "He wasn’t our kicker. The pressure he was under."

Now it was Liberty Center’s turn, with the ball placed on the 20 yard line. As Bias said, the aim was to "hold them to a field goal. They had a good kicker. You don’t have far to go to get a field goal." There would be some tendencies to potentially exploit as Riley describes: "They were predictable on first plays of series." Clause added, "They had a regimented play-calling scheme, but they must have felt they had the talent to make it work." As Tiger QB Rex Miller was preparing to hand off, "Carmine Montana shot one of the gaps and forced the turnover," said Coach Lemal. Chambers fell on the ball. Coach Spence described the immediate reaction: "For a split second, nobody moved." Moments later players swarmed the field and the celebration of Central’s 17-14 victory and state championship had begun.

What was the feeling like for the players? Bias said, "It was like your first Christmas with all those toys, but multiplied by ten. Too bad not everyone can experience it." Orlando’s reaction was "unbridled joy. I can’t believe we won this." Clause said it was "a shock. It took quite a while for it to sink in."

The return trip to Steubenville was memorable. "The ride back was something I’ll never forget. Fire trucks and ambulances meeting us in Cadiz," Kuchinski recalled. Bias remembered that "it was a party. That bus was rocking. Coach Bahen had all these songs he would sing." Riley said, "We rode home with the trophy on the school bus. We were escorted by EMTs in a hot bus with flashing lights."

Looking Back

Twenty years have passed, and the 1993 team remains the only football team in school history to win a state championship in the playoff era. The anniversary has evoked memories from players and coaches alike. Orlando said, "We won it for the teams in the 80s. An 80s player told me, ‘You have no idea what this means to us.’" Kuchinski called the season "unforgettable, a major achievement" and the state title "something that can never be taken away from you." In referring to the team cohesiveness, he said, "I have not seen that togetherness since then. It was all made off the field."

Riley believed that "there were not many superstars in our class. We were not head and shoulders above other classes of that era. We worked for it." He concluded, "From the vantage point of 20 years later, those four weeks in November 1993 were the perfect way to end our youth and our high school football days at Central."

Coach Lemal called the team "one of the greatest groups of players I’ve ever coached. They were willing to work their butts off." Coach Spence said, "With all of Central’s tradition, it kind of came to a peak right there. It’s a great accomplishment. They really worked hard. It was great to see it happen to that group of kids. That’s always going to be remembered. You put your mark in Central’s history."

Players in turn felt that the coaching staff played a significant role in achieving their potential. Riley said, "We had the same coaches four years for every sport. We knew what they expected. They knew our capabilities. There was a consistent coaching philosophy." He was referring to Coach Farrar also coaching wrestling and baseball, Coach Bahen assisting in basketball, and Coach Spence also in basketball. Kuchinski agreed, saying, "We knew what was expected. I knew what I would need to do to be successful. Expectations were set."

The football coaching staff in 1993 was seasoned and very familiar with Central’s system, possessing a combined sixty years of experience with the Crusaders, and many more in the city’s parochial league. The staff consisted of head coach Gregg Bahen, and assistants Craig Farrar, Mike Lemal, Jim Orlando, Frank Spence, Jim Sweeney, Mike Lally, Bob Petrella and Dave Callopy.

Players also credited their coaches as well as the school for their personal development. Orlando said, "What I learned at Central made me a better person, a better man." Kuchinski said, "I look at Coach Bahen and he molded me into the man I am today." Riley said, "The overall experience of playing football at Catholic Central is the foundation of my manhood. Along with my father and grandfather, my coaches taught me how to be a good, dependable, stand-up man. They taught me how to be a champion."

So what are the traits of this team that got back up whenever it was knocked down, succeeded when failure meant elimination, and worked tirelessly to achieve the loftiest of goals? Coach Lemal answered that question in his summary of the team: "They were blue collar, old school, talented kids, and that’s what carried them to a state championship." 

[Thank you to players Jason Bias, Benji Clause, Shannon Kuchinski, Mike Orlando and David Riley, and coaches Mike Lemal and Frank Spence for their valuable input for this article.]