When Nick Perusek grabs hold of a handoff during a game, instinct takes over.
A running back since he was 4, the incoming Avon High School senior sees an opening develop in a defense before it happens, instantly makes a move and drives forward.
He sprints ahead without much processing beforehand, trusting muscle memory, a lifetime of football experience and one of the area’s best offensive lines blocking up front to carry him around and through defenses designed to stop him.
Most of the time during the past two seasons, those defenses have been left in the dust. For the 5-foot-11, 167-pounder who runs sprints during the spring track season, there’s no better sight or sound than what comes with gaining that separation.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Perusek said. “When I first start a play, I kind of feel like my body takes over and I don’t really think of anything, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world to be running toward the student section with everybody cheering for you.”
As Perusek enters his final high school season, his task will be to continue playing the position he loves, the one he plays at an All-Ohio level, and help build on the growing legacy of one of the state’s top varsity programs.
Being an Eagle nowadays comes with some pressure. The team has reached the Division II playoffs nine consecutive times, and since the current iteration of the Southwestern Conference was formed in 2015, it has won at least a share of three consecutive league titles and finished no lower than second in the 10-team standings.
“It’s nice to have a target on your back, I think, because you know you’ll get everyone’s best performance when you play them,” Perusek said.
The past two seasons have been among the best in school history, with the Eagles advancing twice to the State semifinals. Both times, they ultimately lost to Akron Archbishop Hoban, but throughout those seasons, they lost a combined three games and were regularly ranked in the top five of the weekly Associated Press poll.
In Perusek’s three years of high school, the Eagles have posted a combined record of 35-4. A recent Associated Press preseason poll had them listed as the No. 5 team in Div. II, with the season opener scheduled for Aug. 30 against Avon Lake.
“I’d like to go to a State championship and win one,” Perusek said of the team’s ultimate goal. “That’s probably what I’d like to see most…It’s going to take focus every day and just working hard every practice and being mentally dialed in, whether you’re on the field or standing on the sidelines. It’s what we call competitive excellence.”
Perusek believes the team’s decade-long run of postseason appearances and general success during the regular season has had less to do with superior athletic talent than high-level preparation instilled by head coach Mike Elder and his staff. Elder is entering his 13th year as the head of the program.
“I don’t think we’re the most athletic or most skilled team in the state, but I think we have really good coaches and we do a great job of preparing, and I think that’s what sets us apart from other teams,” Perusek said.
Because of Avon’s overall depth and the high number of athletes that comprise the team every year, Perusek had to wait before he could take over as the lead running back. But once he did, his ascent to one of the area’s best at the position was almost as quick as his burst into the open field during a game.
After rushing for almost 400 yards as a sophomore — and primarily a backup — in 2017, he exploded for a team-high 1,274 yards as a junior. His 14 touchdowns tied for the team lead with quarterback Ryan Maloy, who now plays for Bowling Green, and his 96 total points scored led the entire roster. For his efforts, he was named third-team All-Ohio, first-team Northeast Ohio Lakes All-District and second-team All-SWC.
Even more remarkably, he accomplished it all without even playing a full season. During a week two win over Olmsted Falls last August, he suffered a high ankle sprain while scoring a touchdown and was forced to sit out the team’s next five games. Before exiting the 52-14 win over the Bulldogs, he had put together a 239-yard, two-touchdown evening.
“It’s terrible, honestly (to miss time),” Perusek said. “It’s tough to even go to the games, honestly, just sitting on the sidelines and not being able to do anything.”
He returned on a full-time basis in week eight, and his 183 yards and four touchdowns led the Eagles to a convincing 56-21 win at North Ridgeville. After his return, he totaled 947 yards and reached the end zone 12 times before the Eagles were eliminated from the playoffs. In all, he played in nine of the team’s 14 games.
Unfortunately, untimely injuries have befallen Perusek each of the past two seasons. While the ankle injury shortened his 2018 season and removed the possibility of finishing with 2,000 rushing yards or more, his contributions in 2017 were muted by a fractured left hip that followed a muscle tear. He missed five weeks.
But when he’s been on the field, the results have been undeniable. For that reason, Elder believes the sky’s the limit for a healthy Perusek.
“He’s had some bad luck the last two years with injuries, but when he’s healthy he’s proven he’s as good as any running back in the state of Ohio,” Elder said. “And I’m talking the entire state. I’m not talking Avon-good, I’m not talking Southwestern Conference-good, I’m talking Nick Perusek is as good as anybody you’ll see in the state of Ohio. So if he can stay healthy, he’s a dynamic kid who I think is special.”
And the senior will be needed right away this season. With only five starters returning on offense and a quarterback starting his first varsity season in senior Danny Zeh, Perusek will need to be the guy to deliver the Eagles’ offensive punch until everyone is comfortable.
He’s looking forward to what’s ahead.
“I love running the ball, so there’s nothing more you can ask for,” he said. “And we also have some really good players who are coming back along with some new guys…I think our O-line is just as good as last year. The whole line is solid all around, and we don’t have any weak spots.”
The Eagles will begin their season at home Aug. 30 against archrival Avon Lake, which beat them, 31-28, in week three of last season in comeback fashion. It was the first full game Perusek missed after spraining his ankle, and the thought of not being on the field drove him crazy. As a whole, the team is laser-focused on getting even.
With an empty Joe Firment Stadium in front of him and the Eagles cheer team working out some routines that included the words “Shoremen, get ready” last week, Perusek could already envision what the Week 1 atmosphere will be like. The 5,000-seat stadium will be at capacity, and two of the SWC’s frontrunners will try to one-up each other on the way to a potential league championship.
“I’m beyond excited,” he said. “You couldn’t ask for a better first game than against your rivals. The stadium’s going to be packed and it’ll be a great atmosphere to play in.”
While two-a-day practices started Aug. 1 and included weight-lifting sessions early in the morning and practice in the afternoon, the Eagles have a “Beat Lake” sign in their weight room, have trash bins with Avon Lake logos on them and even a fitness dummy wearing a makeshift Avon Lake jersey. Minutes down the road, odds are good that the Shoremen have similar motivational tools regarding the Eagles in and around their facilities.
It’s all part of what makes high school football great — rivalries, lively crowds and a team’s ability to pull together toward a common cause.
Ever the standout, Perusek might spend the days before the big game playing on his phone, listening to his favorite music artist, Chance the Rapper, and helping his teammates prepare. But once he slips on the purple No. 33 jersey — his lucky number — it’s time to run hard and run away from the defense, just like he’s always done.
When it comes to that, few are better.
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