CANTON — It’s been a long road.
While the destination obviously isn’t where the Ursuline senior Class of 2022 wanted it to be, the Fighting Irish overcame a lot on their route to Canton.
The growing pains weren’t the prettiest. Going through a 1-9 season as freshmen and a 2-8 season as sophomores could have been a brutal shot to the team’s confidence.
But great teams always find a way.
“People don’t really realize how tough that is,” quarterback Brady Shannon said about his first two seasons. “Then obviously, going into my junior year we got a lot better. Then having that season and the way it ended with the COVID protocol and stuff like that, it’s even more heartbreaking.
“We came a long way, this senior class. From our freshman year to now, we just really worked hard in the weight room, really worked hard on our own to just get to the point where we are right now.”
The following season, when the seniors were juniors, things started to turn around. The Irish broke out, turning that 2-8 record into a 7-3 season.
While the record was improved, the road was still bumpy.
Urusline liked its chances of a state title bid in 2020, but were undone by an unfortunate bout with contact tracing.
This season was Canton or bust.
While the season ended on the wrong end of a 29-28 final score, the Irish reached Canton.
Coach Dan Reardon, who rejoined the program in 2019 after a brief departure, had a solid core that included Shannon, tailback DeMarcus McElroy and wide receiver Dean Boyd.
For Reardon, who coached under Thom McDaniels during the early 2000s at Warren G. Harding, he couldn’t be more proud.
While the wins weren’t there early on for the Class of 2022, the talent sure was. It was just a matter of putting the pieces together before something special could be built.
“All three of these guys played as young guys and a number of other seniors did as well,” Reardon said. “I was hired going into their sophomore year, we went 2-8. … All these guys did for four years was just respond to adversity.”
Even in 2021, in which the Irish ended their run at 11-4, Ursuline still clawed for everything it got.
In the middle of October, the Irish dropped two straight games to two of the top parochials in Northeast Ohio, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary and Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph. In Reardon’s own words, they weren’t looking like a state-caliber team.
While they could have folded and given up on the year, the opposite happened. After the loss to VASJ, Ursuline was sitting at a 4-3 record. It fired off seven straight wins, scoring over 40 points in six of those, to reach Canton.
“Midseason, we had two losses back-to-back where we were not looking anything like a championship caliber football team or a state finalist football team,” Reardon said. “They didn’t give up, they kept coming. It would have been easy to not be where we are today.”
All that resiliency doesn’t undo the pain of the loss though. They know that. That pain doesn’t go away, but Reardon assured the Irish they had nothing to hang their heads about.
Reardon mentioned an unnamed assistant coach who was a part of the 2007 runner-up team and how that disappointment is still there all these years later.
On the other hand, that doesn’t undo how great the journey was though.
“These guys are going to look back at some point and they’re going to realize what they accomplished and to be in this position,” Reardon said. “There are coaches who have coached for 50 years and there’s players who play an entire career without even getting close to this.
“There’s a bunch of things accomplished, that these guys need to be proud of and should be proud of. I’m proud of them. Yet, it’s the most incredibly disappointing thing you can ever imagine. … They should be proud of what they have accomplished. They feel like they let everybody down, but they didn’t, so I think that’s important to keep perspective there.”
The names of many of the Class of 2022 will have their names in the record books at Ursuline for years to come. Shannon became the team’s all-time passing leader and Boyd is top five in multiple receiving categories.
The team’s captains, Shannon, Boyd and McElroy aren’t just leaving a legacy of being excellent football players.
Reardon assured them it’s more than that. Their off-the-field legacy is just as important.
“They’re up here not because they’re good football players,” Reardon said. “They’re up here, because they’re our captains and they’re great leaders and they’re great young men.
“They’re going to go on to do big things. (Boyd) is going to Harvard to continue his football career, (Shannon) is going to Central Florida to play baseball, he’s a fantastic baseball player, and McElroy, someone’s going to get a really, really good football player, but that doesn’t tell their story. Their story is that there are tremendous young men and you know, just great resiliency, great character. I know they’re going to do big things. I know how disappointed they are right now, but I can’t emphasize enough how proud I am of them.”
While McElroy’s future destination is currently unknown, Boyd is headed for Massachusetts and Shannon is departing for Florida, expect their names and the legacy of their class to be talked about for a long time.
“I just wanted to leave a legacy here just for these younger guys and to set a good example for them, put them on the right path to success and just be a good leader on the field for them,” Shannon said. “… I wanted to leave a good word for the younger guys to keep on carrying on this tradition.”
The core that helped bring the Ursuline program back to Canton for the first time in a decade. Boyd predicts the team will be walking on the field in the shadow of the Pro Football Hall of Fame again very soon.
“What happened was just destiny,” he said. “I think this is just going to make us stronger men and motivated us for next season. I’m looking forward to watching us win the state championship next year.”