OLIVESBURG — Crestview senior Caleb Cunningham came to the sidelines during a timeout Friday night with about three minutes left, just before the Cougars punted the ball back to East Knox.
“Need a break?” one of the Crestview assistants asked.
The hulking 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end/offensive tackle shook his head, grabbed a drink, rubbed a sore shin and headed back onto the field.
His was an offensive and defensive on-field presence felt all night as the Cougars (1-1) held off East Knox (1-1), 20-14, in a non-league victory at Scott Bailey Memorial Field.
It was a busy night for the 2022 All-Northwest District football player and All-Ohio wrestler.
Cunningham had two sacks and countless pressures on defense, despite an East Knox offense that tried its best to avoid his side of the field. He led a pass rush that clamped down on Bulldog QB Jax Lester in the game’s final seconds, including a final sack from fellow senior DE Gavin Cains.
On offense, he opened holes for his young running backs and protected sophomore QB Liam Kuhn as the Cougars rolled up more than 300 yards in offense and scored all 20 points in the first 24 minutes.
East Knox coach Andrew Beatty, in his second year at the helm, knew where Cunningham was at all times — almost never leaving the field.
“My run-game coordinator, my offensive line coach, myself, we all very quickly picked (Cunningham) up on film. He’s pretty good, you know, and that’s an understatement.
“He’s really good. We needed to know where he was at and we wanted to try to basically run away from him or put him in spots where we could get leverage on him. When you have a guy like that, that you kind of have to game plan around, that’s just an another extra hurdle that you have to work through,” Beatty said.
Early tackle makes a statement
Cunningham, who finished 8th in the state wrestling tournament last year in the Division III 215-pound weight class, made a statement tackle early.
It came after Crestview took the opening kickoff and moved 80 yards to score, a drive that took 8:43 against an East Knox defense that posted a shutout in the season opener. That drive was capped by one of sophomore quarterback Liam Kuhn’s three TD passes on the night.
On its first possession, East Knox faced a third-and-one and handed the ball to 5-10, 185-pound senior running back Aaron White, who rushed for 112 yards on 21 carries in the opener.
Cunningham fended off a blocker and met White at the line of scrimmage. The immovable force stopped the irresistible object cold. The Bulldogs were forced to punt and Crestview scored four minutes later to take a 14-0 lead.
Crestview coach Steve Haverdill, in his fifth year leading the team and 10th in the program, knows what he has in Cunningham.
“He’s a horse. They were checking at the line and flipping the calls to go away from (Cunningham),” said Haverdill, now 40-10 overall as the head coach and coming off a 12-1 season in 2022 that saw his team reach the regional semifinals.
“He’s an absolute animal — his leverage, his hands, his ability. He started last year opposite (All-Ohio DE) Owen Barker. He had a lot of stuff come to him because people ran away from Owen. Now people are starting to run away from him … and that’s good that we can make teams one-dimensional or just go to one side of the field.
“Caleb is just a beast, a huge anchor up front for us. But I thought the whole defense played well tonight,” Haverdill said.
Last season is just that — last season
Both Haverdill and Beatty have put 2022 in the rear-view mirror.
Crestview graduated 10 seniors, seven of whom earned All-Ohio recognition. The Cougars saw their 21-game regular season winning streak snapped with a 21-12 loss at Seneca East in Week One.
“Every team’s different. Sometimes it’s unfair because those kids stepped into a streak that some of them were a part of, but not everybody was. We explained to them, ‘Look, you don’t get a trophy for this. This is more of a media thing,’ which is great,” Haverdill said.
“It’s great recognition for our program and the kids that were here and the work they put in and their accomplishments, but we can’t ride their shirttails. Those guys aren’t here and they’re not coming back out to help.
“So we’ve got to grow up and we’ve got to get better every week and we’ve got to do it on our own. They’re taking that to heart and they’re working hard,” Haverdill said.
East Knox suffered through an uncharacteristic 2-8 campaign, including a 35-0 loss to Crestview, last season. The Bulldogs opened this year with a 14-0 win over Northridge last week.
Despite the loss, Beatty said his team played better than Week One.
“I told the boys that if East Knox from Week One showed up tonight, then we would’ve got blown out of here. They did what we asked. We improved from Week One to Week Two. That was a much better game, even in a loss.
“I don’t really care for moral victories, but there’s a reason (Crestview) is one of the best programs in the state. They do all the things right. And we went toe-to-toe with them until the last 30 seconds at the end,” Beatty said.
1st quarter — CHS — Keith Abshire 11-yard pass from Liam Kuhn (PAT Abshire kick), 7-0
2nd quarter — CHS — Karter Goon 23-yard pass from Kuhn (PAT Abshire kick), 14-0
2nd quarter — EKHS — Bracen Davis 19-yard pass from Jax Lester (PAT Will Jensen kick), 14-7
2nd quarter — CHS — Brice Perkin 13-yard pass from Kuhn (PAT kick blocked), 20-7
4th quarter — EKHS — Davis 12-yard pass from Lester (PAT Jensen kick), 20-14