Tommy Zirzow

Lucas running back Tommy Zirzow searches for an opening in the Cuyahoga Heights defense during the Division VII, Region 25 final at Canal Fulton Northwest's Smilek Stadium.

LUCAS -- After years of knocking on the door, Lucas finally broke it down.

Then the Cubs smashed it to splinters and would have taken a torch to what was left, were it not for the driving rain at Canal Fulton Northwest’s Smilek Stadium.

Saturday’s thrilling 21-13 win over small-school juggernaut Cuyahoga Heights in the Region 25 final did more than send Lucas to the state semifinals for the first time in program history. It exorcised years of postseason demons.

Lucas won its first playoff game in 2014 and reached the regional championship game in 2015. Heartbreaking first-round losses in 2016 and 2017 followed.

The Cubs looked like they would finally get over the hump last fall, thundering through the opening two rounds of the playoffs before falling to Trimble, 21-14, in the regional finals in a game decided in the final 30 seconds.

Trimble would throttle Cuyahoga Heights 47-21 in the state semifinals to reach the Division VII final — a game the Tomcats lost to McComb.

“It was definitely a feeling of despair when we were sitting at home and they were in the state semis,” senior Tommy Zirzow said. “Then they were taking it to Cuyahoga Heights and we were thinking, ‘Jeez, that could be us.’

“I think that loss helped us a lot this year. It motivated us and proved that we could get there.”

The Cubs lost career rushing king Jeb Grover to graduation last spring and while the foundation was in place, replacing Grover’s 6,332 career rushing yards wasn’t going to be easy.

Zirzow and Ethan Sauder have both rushed for more than 1,000 yards this fall and veteran quarterback Logan Niswander’s leadership has been invaluable.

For Niswander, a three-year starter, Saturday’s win was cathartic.

“It’s just like a weight rolled off our shoulders. We kept coming up short,” said Niswander, who also delivered a handful of bone-rattling hits from his safety spot Saturday. “I can’t even explain what I’m feeling right now. I couldn’t be any happier.”

Neither could veteran coach Scott Spitler.

“Last year, getting so close and having it taken away so late, they weren’t going to be denied,” Spitler said. “I’m so proud of our kids.”

A former head coach at Mount Vernon, Spitler took over a program in disarray in 2009. Rod Gallaway had resigned as head coach with two games remaining in the 2008 season as the Cubs staggered to a 1-9 record.

Lucas was a combined 16-34 in Spitler’s first five seasons from 2009 to 2013. The Cubs never won more than four games in a season.

That all changed in 2014 when a talented group of juniors led Lucas to the third postseason berth in program history and first playoff win.

The Cubs qualified for the playoffs in 2000 under Jerry Miller and 2006 under Joe Lewis, but lost to Mogadore in the opening round both years.

In 2014, Lucas beat Plymouth 37-34 on Rueben Luna’s walk-off field goal, avenging a 40-22 loss to the Big Red in the season-opener and setting up a second-round date with powerhouse Berlin Center Western Reserve.

The Cubs gave the Blue Devils all they wanted on a frigid mid-November night at Orrville’s Heartland Field. Lucas trailed 21-15 at the half before falling 42-21.

That set the stage for the breakthrough 2015 season, when Luna and Mason Galco led Lucas to the regional final. Along the way, the Cubs hosted a playoff game for the first time in program history and reached the regional final after Luna orchestrated a remarkable comeback over Tiffin Calvert at Bellevue’s National Bank Field in the regional semifinals.

The Cubs fell to McComb in the regional championship game in 2015 and lost opening-round games in 2016 and 2017 by a combined three points.

That made Saturday’s on-field celebration all the sweeter.

“This isn’t just for us,” an emotional Niswander said. “This is for our community and for all the players who came before us. This is for them, too.”

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I have covered high school sports in Richland County since 2000. Email him at curt@richlandsource.com or follow him on Twitter: Follow @curtjconrad on twitter.

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