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HOOVER, Ala. -- Hailing from the heart of Big Ten country, Kenton (Ohio) High is a high school football oddity, routinely throwing more than 600 times a season.
After busing the 600 miles south to the National Select 7-on-7 presented by Under Armour, this aerial attack was again the oddity as it routinely took the air out of the ball en route to claiming the title. Kenton went undefeated in tournament play and beat national power Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes in the finals, 22-4.
Following the championship game, tournament MVP Grant Sherman said it was a great feeling to be taking the title back with his team.
"We have a lot of confidence in ourselves," he said. "Back home, we throw every day. We came here just wanting to do the best we could -- and we won."
Sherman is every bit of his listed 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. As a junior, he threw for more than 4,000 yards with a 49-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. During the tournament, he relied on his favorite target, Justin Sawmiller.
The two were a dangerous duo all weekend. Each was named to the all-tournament team. Their chemistry started in third grade on the playground, and it has evolved from there.
"Justin has been one of my best friends for so long, and being able to keep playing with him has been great," Sherman said. "I know what he is going to do and where he is going to be."
In the regular season, Sawmiller hauled in 128 passes for 1,810 yards.
He may have equaled those numbers this weekend.
"I just try to run good routes and be in a place to make the play," Sawmiller said. "I know the ball will come my way a lot, so I need to be in a place to make the catch."
Head coach Mike Mauk said he felt good about his team's chances, so long as it could contain the athletes on opposing teams.
"There are always a lot of high-profile teams at this event, and a lot of them have outstanding athletes," Mauk said. "We just try to take pride in being a high-quality passing team.
"I think we played well on defense both days, and we did a good job matching up athletically."
In four of its six tournament wins, Kenton held the opposition to single-digit scoring.
Against Byrnes, the defense was stifling; it forced two stops and got two interceptions off of two-star quarterback Shuler Bentley, scoring on all four Rebels possessions.
Aside from the defense, the biggest factor was the methodical approach that Kenton took.
After a big play on the first play of the game -- Sawmiller made an impressive one-handed catch while bettering a defensive pass interference penalty -- the team went into a shell, throwing whip routes and quick passes throughout the game.
Kenton built a 17-0 lead at the midway point of the contest with touchdown passes to Sawmiller and Kollin Stollar.
After Kenton forced a turnover on defense at the 9:27 mark, it did not give it back until 3:48. It was a nearly six-minute drive -- unheard of in 7-on-7 play.
Sherman said style points are immaterial and the team it is all about winning.
"I think people overlooked us," he said. "I am not sure anyone took us seriously until we started getting deep into the winners' bracket.
"We were very confident coming here, and that kept growing as we kept winning."
Mauk booked the bus in May -- well before the team won its qualifying tournament.
He did not say whether that move was based cockiness or confidence but simply claimed he was doing advance planning. Mauk said it was great to see his team perform at a high level.
"It is rare to drive past our stadium and see it empty," he said. "The kids are always out there working to get better, and this is another step toward that.
"I know our guys enjoy practice because this is a fun system to play in. Quarterbacks have a chance to showcase themselves, and the receivers know the ball is going to be in the air a lot."
Kenton claimed its first title in three trips to the South, but it will be forgotten soon because the season is set to start in just over a month.
"This is a great win," Sherman said. "But we have three more important titles to win: conference, region and state."
Recruiting the Wildcats
Entering tournament play, most following high school football knew this version of the Kenton team only because of Michigan commit Noah Furbush.
With six-plus months until signing day, there is a case to be made for other players on the roster to get an opportunity at the next level.
Sherman and Sawmiller earned profiles in the Rivals.com database because each impressed analysts in attendance.
Southeastern region analyst Woody Wommack said that both belong on a roster.
"Sawmiller was always open," Wommack said. "I got to see him against bigger, stronger players, and he was always able to get a clean release, find space in the defense and make the catch. I am not sure I saw him drop a ball.
"As for Sherman, I think there is a spot for him, too. He has a release that will need to be tweaked, but it is not a fluke when you win this tournament and when you have the kind of numbers he has.
"I know that coaches will see his weird delivery and could shy away," Wommack said. "But to have the mental makeup to know the offense and throw catchable ball after catchable ball is something that someone should find appealing."
Mauk said he doesn't know why coaches are not coming in on his players.
"Jake is an outstanding player," he said. "He will be a four-year letterman for us, and he led the nation in receptions the last two years.
"I think Grant has all the physical tools, too."
Neither has an offer, but both are hoping that changes.
Sherman is drawing limited interest from MAC programs.
"I am not worried about all that," Sherman said.
With a win in a prestigious event and the video being readily available, Mauk thinks that the circumstance for each could change.
"We don't get out and do too many individual things," he said. "We try to be more team oriented, but I think the more people that see our guys the more opportunities they should have."
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