The importance of the Division II Regional football final between rivals Avon and Avon Lake could be felt and heard even before the game started Friday at the North Ridgeville High School parking lot.
Reminiscent of NFL games, the parking lot of the stadium where top-seeded Avon was to face second-seeded Avon Lake was filled with tailgaters grilling hamburgers, playing corn hole and blaring fight songs through portable speakers.
A trip to the Div. II State semifinals was on the line. And the Eagles turned out to be the ones moving on. Inside the 4,500-capacity stadium, the undefeated Eagles (13-0) took a 20-3 victory over the Shoremen (11-2). Spectators lined the fences surrounding the field and packed the bleachers. The student sections were filled with raucous fans, cheering every drive and score by both teams.
As the Eagles’ lead grew and the clocked ticked down, the Avon half of the stadium could sense the moment. Decibels rose in the fourth quarter and, at the conclusion, students poured onto the field to celebrate.
Justin Bingham had seen this type of crowd energy before as a player. The former Eagle linebacker and tight end, who graduated in 2017, watched his younger brother, junior lineman Mason Bingham, help his team to state final four for the third consecutive season.
Clad in an Eagles practice jersey and eagle-shaped hat, Justin Bingham said he knew the feeling of playing in such an environment all too well.
“I remember playing for Avon, and if we said the words ‘Avon Lake’ we had to do push-ups,” he said. “The word Avon was not supposed to be said in front of Lake. All the signs say ‘Beat Lake’, all the shirts say ‘Beat Lake.’
“(The team) knows it’s a rivalry throughout the season,” he added. “(From the) first game of the year, there’s a clock in the weight room counting down to when we play Lake and that game in itself is a huge deal. So doing this in the playoffs, I’m sure the players are nervous and excited.”
The Shoremen, who’d won 11 consecutive games dating back to the second week and had fashioned one of the finest defensive seasons in school history, brought out their own legion of fans. Avon’s student section coordinated a “black out: for their attire, so the Shoremen equivalent, naturally, staged a “white out.”
Among that group were shirtless seniors who painted their upper bodies white, with red lettering and numbers to match the jerseys of their friends. Kevin Pincura, sporting senior lineman Nick Marsh’s No. 2, said the bitter cold, which dropped into the 20s by the second half, wasn’t going to deter the shirtless show of spirit.
“It was a group decision, and it might be the last game of our high school careers so we had to do it,” Pincura said.
Nick Vockelman, also sans shirt, had no regrets. He wanted to support his friends on the football team, many of whom he’d known since kindergarten.
“This has been special just because we’re all seniors and our friends are out there,” Vockelman said.
Such is the nature of a rivalry that has only grown in stature since the teams started playing regularly in 2007. Avon Lake won that meeting 50-25, but since 2010 Avon has gone 9-3, including last Friday’s matchup. The teams’ only other playoff meeting came in a 2016 Regional quarterfinal, which the Shoremen narrowly won, 27-26.
Reflecting on the evening and the rivalry, Shoremen coach Matt Kostelnik had a final thought: “I think this is what high school football is (about) in Lorain County.”
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