COLUMN: A New Golden Era of Hilltopper Football
December 8, 2021 by Matt Jaworski

In winning Chardon's second consecutive state football championship, the Hilltoppers officially created a new golden age of football in Chardon.

In winning Chardon’s second consecutive state football championship, the Hilltoppers officially created a new golden age of football in Chardon.

The 2020 and 2021 teams did something no other teams in Chardon’s history have done — win and then repeat as state champs.

Considering some of the great teams that have worn Hilltopper uniforms, that statement really says something.

The ride to the school’s third state title was memorable, to say the least.

“It’s going to take weeks to digest what these kids did,” said Chardon head coach Mitch Hewitt.

On the surface, the answer appears simple.

The Hilltoppers showed they had the defense to win a state championship early, and as the season progressed, they found a formula on offense that worked.

Week in and week out, defensive coordinator Brian Landies put his unit in a position to be dominate. We’re not talking about being successful, but actually pounding opposing offensives into submission.

Nearly every week, Chardon’s opponents had no answers for the Topper defense. Often times, opponents left frustrated and sore.

The defensive line featuring Alex McDonald, Michael Washington, Cooper Felger and Alex Kisley gave opposing quarterbacks nightmares. Not only did they do a great job opening up holes for linebackers Christian Hall, Heath Fetchik and Brody Dotson, they also got in the backfield, where they picked up tackle for losses and sacks at an amazing rate.

Not to be outdone, Chardon’s linebackers proved they belong among the school’s all-time great units as well. When the defensive line opened up holes, it was the linebackers who came in and shut down opposing running backs.

When quarterbacks dared to throw against Chardon, they faced a secondary Hewitt called one of the best during his time as head coach. With starters like Trey Liebhardt, Leo Columbi, AJ Bruce and Nathaniel Sulka, opposing quarterbacks had a tough time throwing the ball.

Sulka, who started 46 games during his career, didn’t get the run some of the other defenders did, but his impact was immeasurable. The senior had a team-leading 88 tackles entering the championship game, and his toughness was an inspiration for all his teammates.

“His shoulder is shot; it popped out last week,” said Hewitt. “There are guys who you worry about and wonder if they will play in the state title game. There was never a doubt with him. He’s the ultimate competitor, and his legacy at Chardon will forever be told. I’m going to miss him.”

Prior to the playoffs starting, Hewitt noted the one thing that separated last year’s defense, which he said was one of the all-time greats at Chardon: the lack of a ring.

The debate can now begin as to which was the greatest defense now that both the 2020 and 2021 defenses have had rings.

On the other side of the football, Sean Carr carried the load early, as Alex Henry, who had never started as quarterback, learned and then began to hone his craft.

“We don’t win without Sean Carr,” said Sulka. “We’re not in the state championship without Sean Carr.”

After seven weeks of play, it was clear the Hilltoppers had the defense to make a run at another state title, but something was missing offensively.

A decision was made prior to the start of week eight to add Bruce into the offensive mix, and the move might have changed the entire postseason for Chardon. Bruce’s speed allowed him to get to the outside on jet sweeps, which opened up the middle for Carr and Henry.

Add in Nathan Tager, who capped off a sensational career as one of the school’s all-time great kickers, and this Hilltopper team was stacked at most positions.

Looking back, this Topper team had the entire package, but at the beginning of the season, few people were thinking about another state title.

Graduation hit the Hilltoppers hard, and few starters returned in 2021.

“I underestimated our kids this year, and they sensed that with me,” Hewitt admitted.

From the start, this team had a chip on its shoulder because many people doubted that a bunch of kids who didn’t start a game last year could make a run at a state title.

After the championship game, Sulka was happy to remind them they were wrong.

“The feeling was a little bit better,” he said of this year’s win compared to last year’s. “There were a lot of people who doubted us this year. They didn’t think we could do it. They didn’t think we’d be here, but we proved everyone wrong. It was an amazing moment.”

Sulka also recalled something Brady Toth told him last year, which he took to heart.

“Last year Brady Toth said to me the best thing you can do for your senior year is to go out with a smile,” Sulka said. “There’s only a small percentage of seniors who get to do that, and we went out with a smile.”

Not only did the Hilltoppers create a new golden age of football in Chardon, but they inspired the youngsters who look up to them as heroes.

As the team was clapped out of Chardon in its buses, Hewitt and his players recalled the looks of the young students, some of whom likely have dreams of winning a state title themselves.

“It’s really special. It’s made more special by what you see going on in the world,” Hewitt said. “You can see all the kids smiling. You can see it in the community. It’s the beauty of sports, it’s what unifies people. Chardon is a football town, and we are blessed and fortunate.”

“It was amazing going through the square and seeing all those little kids who dream to be in our shoes,” said Henry. “The whole city of Chardon has been behind us.”

Perhaps there has never been a better time to be on the Topper train.

In the past two years, Chardon has won 28 straight games and two state titles.

All year long, Chardon Memorial was a loud, rocking stadium. During the playoff run, it stayed the same, and transferred all the way out to the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium as well.

Asked whether he ever turned around to look at the crowd, Carr said, “I took it in a couple of times today. It was awesome.”

Much like Carr took in the sights and sounds at the title game, we hope you, the fans, have enjoyed the ride.

For a public school not named Kirtland, such success doesn’t happen too often.

Both Bruce and Henry believe enough talent will be on the roster to make a third straight title appearance next year — and after what we witnessed this year, it would be unwise to bet against them.

Remember, this is the new golden age of Chardon football. The expectation bar has been raised.