His eyes had a far-away look but Christian Velez’s heart and mind were in the game Friday as he marched across the football field holding a blue-striped American flag.
He put on a Comets uniform just a little more than 24 hours after his father, Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper Kenneth Velez, was killed.
The elder Velez was on duty in Lakewood when he was struck and killed by Joshua Gaspar, 37, of Columbia Station. Gaspar was charged with aggravated vehicular homicide — investigators also suspect he was intoxicated.
Amherst cheered and wept at the same time as Christian, a sophomore defensive middle back, lined up Friday and inspired his Comets to a 54-13 victory over the Berea-Midpark Titans. And the filled stadium went wild as the touchdowns rained in, as a 15-game losing streak was broken, and as Velez was hefted on his teammates shoulders in a post-game celebration.
“It’s absolutely unreal,” said senior Chad Jones, who led cheers through the night from the senior bleacher section. “To be able to support Christian and his family is amazing. Honestly, I knew we were going to come out here and get in a big W for them.”
It’s no secret the Comets have struggled in recent years, ending 2014 on a pair of losses, going 0-10 last year and chaining on three more defeats to start the 2016 season.
Coach Bill Fishleigh said rallying around #43 in his time of grief inspired his players.
They lit the field on fire from the start.
Jeremy Smith picked up a seven-yard touchdown less than three minutes into play on a pass from quarterback Johnny Matakovitch. Two minutes later, workhorse running back Khennedy Scagliozzo put his head down and rammed to the four yard line, setting up Smith for a run to the endzone across the middle.
Later in the quarter, wide receiver Mark Harris nabbed the ball out of the air and dragged a trio of defenders to the sideline, setting up a seven-yard flip to Matakovitch to Evan Shawver for another seven points.
Nose tackle Cairo Smith made a crucial stop for the Comets as the Titans went for it on fourth down at the start of the second quarter. The following Amherst drive yielded a 10-yard Jeremy Smith TD but a blocked PAT.
With five minutes remaining in the half, Scagliozzo ate up another 23 yards, dragging five defenders into the red zone. On his third consecutive carry of the series, he crossed the line to make it 33-0 Amherst.
Then the Comets intercepted a Titans long bomb, setting off a cacophony in the bleachers. Scagliozzo fed on the fans’ noise, taking the ball 43 yards up the sideline for another touchdown.
Berea-Midpark managed to dance into the endzone with 34 seconds remaining in the half but the Amherst onslaught continued as soon as play resumed. Wide receiver Austin Stierhoff added to the Comets score; after a Titans response for seven, Harris sealed the deal with a fourth quarter TD pass from Matakovitch.
Harris beamed after the game and said Amherst’s win was for Velez.
“For all that pressure on Christian’s shoulders, it’s a win for him,” he said. “That kid has one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen. His mindset, I think, was his dad would have wanted him to play. And he played his heart out. What a guy.”
“He’s a strong kid,” said Shawver. “From the first tackle of the game, he was our motivation. We gave everything for him.”
Fishleigh said his players listened when he talked before the game about brotherhood and supporting each other.
“They did it,” he said. “Everyone knew what this game would be about. It wasn’t just about football.”
Now the Comets have a win — and some confidence. Fishleigh said that will make all the difference on the road this Friday against Olmsted Falls: “I thought our Achilles heel for the last 15 games was having that psychological block and we had to blow past it. They’re going to have more pep in their step the next time they come out on the field.”
The Bulldogs are 3-1 after blowing out North Ridgeville 20-0, losing only to Westlake this season.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Photos by Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Austin Stierhoff grips Christian Velez in a hug on the home sideline Friday as the Comets prepare to take on the Berea-Midpark Titans. A huge win was dedicated to Christian’s father, Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper Kenneth Velez, who was killed Thursday in the line of duty.
Joseph Colon | Amherst News-Times Christian Velez makes a beautiful open field tackle on a Titans kickoff return.
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