It had been more than a decade and a half since a Central District program accomplished what the Hartley High School football team did Dec. 2 when it captured its second consecutive Division IV state championship.

It had been more than a decade and a half since a Central District program accomplished what the Hartley High School football team did Dec. 2 when it captured its second consecutive Division IV state championship.

The Hawks' 24-21 victory over Steubenville at Ohio Stadium also was their fourth state title overall, moving them into sole possession of second place among area programs behind Newark Catholic, which has won eight championships.

For players like Cody Kirkbride, the win over the Big Red -- a rematch of the state final that Hartley won 31-28 last season -- was a legacy-building moment for him and the other members of the 20-player senior class.

The last time a team from the Central District won back-to-back titles was Amanda-Clearcreek in 1999 and 2000 in Division V.

"One of the goals we had at the beginning of the year was to be one of the best classes to ever walk through Hartley, and we're going to be the only ones to say we've won back-to-back (state) titles," Kirkbride said. "It's one of the best accomplishments in the school's history."

Kirkbride put his stamp on both state-title victories.

After intercepting a pass during the closing minute to help seal last year's win over Steubenville, he had a forced fumble and led Hartley in tackles with nine in the rematch.

He also was involved in what might have been the game's biggest play.

With the Big Red lining up for what would have been a go-ahead 41-yard field goal with 1 minute, 32 seconds to play and the game tied at 21, the attempt by Mark Smith went only 6 yards past the line of scrimmage and into the arms of Kirkbride at the Hawks' 18.

He ran it back 59 yards to the Steubenville 23, setting up a 31-yard game-winning field goal by sophomore Matteo Agriesti as time expired.

Hartley also won last year's state final with a field goal, a 40-yarder by 2016 graduate Ben Hawk with 4:57 to go.

The Hawks went 12-3 a year ago and finished 13-2 this season.

"Back-to-back championships puts us in pretty elite status at our school," said coach Brad Burchfield, whose program won the 1986 Division IV state title under Dick Geyer and also won the 2010 Division IV championship in Burchfield's third season. "Cody had the interception that sealed it a year ago so (the state final is) probably a pretty good spot for him.

"With our games, you just don't know. You have a lot of crazy things happen. The fact that (Kirkbride) returned it so far, we were in good field-goal position. We know how mentally tough (Agriesti) is now. This was an important football game and a big stage."

The Hawks took a 7-0 lead on a 38-yard run by senior Nick Onega with 5:44 left in the opening quarter. Steubenville tied it early in the second but Hartley scored a pair of touchdowns before halftime, a 32-yard pass from senior Jake Ruby to senior Jaden Manley on fourth-and-7 and a 44-yard run by senior Marquette Dixon.

Steubenville cut it to 21-14 on a 2-yard run by Johnny Agresta on fourth-and-goal on the final play of the first half.

"We're human beings," Burchfield said. "They scored right before half, we're not happy and we were a little down. But we were up seven in the state championship with a chance to win it all."

Hartley had a pair of big plays to preserve the lead in the third quarter.

Steubenville had fourth-and-3 from the Hawks' 8 with about eight minutes left in the period, but Jalen McGhee was stopped for no gain by senior Jack Baughman and junior Alexander Blackmon.

Hartley moved deep inside Steubenville territory on the next possession when Ruby was intercepted by Alec Taylor, but before he could advance, Manley stole the ball from his arms for a fumble at the Big Red 14.

The Hawks ultimately failed to score and Steubenville tied it at 21 on a 21-yard pass from Javon Davis to Charles Reeves with 5:41 remaining, but Hartley made the game's biggest plays during the final two minutes.

"We were beyond blessed to spend 15 weeks with these guys," Burchfield said.

Kirkbride, who started at right guard and linebacker and was the district's Defensive Player of the Year, was one of five players to start at two positions along with Ruby (QB/P), Manley (DB/WR) and seniors Thomas Casimir (LG/DL) and Cam'Ron Culver (RB/DB).

Casimir was first-team all-district on offense, and Culver and Manley were first-team all-district on defense.

Dixon, who rushed for 178 yards in the state final and finished the season with 2,667 yards and 37 touchdowns, also was first-team all-district.

Culver was the second-leading rusher with 654 yards and six touchdowns, and Ruby finished 44-for-82 passing for 853 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Manley added 19 catches for 532 yards and six touchdowns.

Ruby was the second-team all-district punter, while senior Jordin Smith (DL) and Baughman (LB) also were second-team all-district.

Seniors Adam Cone (RT) and Nick Dawes (LT) were honorable mention all-district.

Casimir, Dixon and Kirkbride were first-team all-state, and Culver and Manley were special mention all-state.

>> Game recap: Bexley 24, Steubenville 21

Junior Ethan Amaya (DL) was second-team all-district along with Agriesti.

Also eligible to return after being key players are juniors Elijah Carter (DB), Nick Cone (FB), Patrick Gilliland (DL), James Reese III (LB) and Max Steinecker (C) and sophomores Phillip Cole (WR/DB) and Jordan Kirkbride (TE). Blackmon and Reese were honorable mention all-district.

Junior Ben Dankow ran for 322 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries. Other top rushers eligible to return are Carter (215 yards on 10 carries) and Nick Cone (188 yards on 31 rushes).

Hartley beat Ready 56-17 on Oct. 7 to win the CCL-Gold Division title and received the fifth seed for the Region 14 playoffs, in which it beat fourth-seeded and host Jonathan Alder 35-21 on Nov. 4, top-seeded Port Clinton 44-7 on Nov. 11 at Tiffin Columbian and second-seeded Ottawa-Glandorf 38-35 on Nov. 18 at Bellefontaine.

The Hawks then defeated Kettering Alter 14-7 in a state semifinal Nov. 25 at London.

The state final also was the last game for longtime assistant coach Chuck Wooten, who is retiring.

"I believe you win with your seniors, and that's every year," Burchfield said.

"I was thinking about them and it has been a little bit emotional. With coach Wooten retiring and these guys leaving, we've got a lot of stories with them. They've done everything we've asked them to do. There's going to be other special groups. Other teams are going to have a chance to be successful too, but these kids are phenomenal."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

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