St. Xavier kept the faith amidst adversity, fighting through a three-game skid to win the Ohio state championship.

We like to highlight the best of the best, and that’s our goal with the Hudl Champions series. We tap state champion coaches and gain insights that can help others get an edge on Friday nights.

Coach: Steve Specht, St. Xavier HS

State: Ohio

Record: 10-5 (Division 1)

Championship score: St. Xavier 27, St. Ignatius 20 (2 OT)

On Oct. 22, St. Xavier’s season appeared dead in the water. That night the Cincinnati program lost to St. Ignatius 31-14, dropping the Bombers to 4-5. No one was thinking about a state title at that point. St. Xavier just wanted to make the playoffs.

But Steve Specht’s squad never lost the faith. As the losses and injuries piled up, he continued to preach the same message he had all year long - stay the course, trust the process and you’ll be rewarded. He couldn’t imagine how prescient his words would be.

St. Xavier won its final regular season game, then rolled off four straight playoff wins - three of which required at least one overtime - to capture the Ohio 6A Division II championship, getting revenge on St. Ignatius with a 27-20 victory in double overtime. The Bombers became the first team in Ohio history to win a title with five losses.

“They have to trust the process and everything we’re trying to accomplish, and our kids bought in,” Specht, who captured his third state championship with the victory, said. “I kept telling them, we get into the playoffs and everyone is 0-0. You can forget the regular-season records. Ours was 5-5. It’s anybody’s game. We’re battle-tested. We played the best anybody has to offer. They survived all the adversity and they weathered those storms, so they were prepared. We didn’t let the white noise get in the way, all the people jumping off the bandwagon.

“Focus on what you need to be the best you you can be. If we all focus on that, we’re going to be fine.”

St. Xavier’s season couldn’t have gotten off to a more rocky start. Left tackle Matt Bockhorst, a Clemson commit, and left guard Dominic Altimari were lost for the season during summer camps. Then quarterback Sean Clifford, pledged to Penn State, sprained his foot as the Bombers lost 34-0 by St. John Bosco on national TV in the season opener.

Even as the losses mounted and St. Xavier endured a three-game losing skid, Specht continued to push positivity. Getting frustrated with his players wouldn’t solve the team’s issues. Through all the adversity, Specht preached that the season wasn’t over, that there was still plenty to play for.  

“You have to be positive and say, ‘Do your best. If you make physical mistakes, you have my permission to fail. But you also have my permission to get back up, dust yourself off and battle the next play,’” Specht said. “That was the focus all year long."

Whenever a coach preaches the same mantra over and over, there is the possibility that the message grows stale and the players tune it out, especially when the negative results continue. But Specht saw his seniors take his message and preach it themselves. When the players took ownership, buy-in was never a question.

“It was a beautiful thing to watch as young people listen, they absorb and then they start teaching the young guys,” Specht said. “That’s what you hope to see as a coach, that your message is no longer coming from you. It’s coming from them because they’ve owned it and they’ve embraced it.”

St. Xavier’s 2007 championship squad followed a very different path. That team, led by Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, rolled to a 15-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in the national polls. Specht admits that “I didn’t even have to coach. I just rolled the ball out.”

This year required more patience, guile and trust. So many times it looked like the season was going off the rails. But Specht’s guidance and his players’ resolve kept St. Xavier’s cart from tipping over, and that belief was rewarded with the ultimate goal.

“Now I’ve seen the resolve of young men when they give everything they have to a worthy cause,” Specht said. “We preach it all the time. Now I’ve seen it. I’ve seen what can happen with a group that’s not considered the most talented group in the world, with a group that has struggled with injury. Every year there is a possibility, regardless of talent level or what you have coming back. I’ve seen it now.

“I’ve learned more as a coach from these kids and I’ve taken more away. We get in this profession to impact kids, but this year’s group of kids impacted me more than I would ever be able to impact them. It was refreshing.”

Previous Hudl Champions

Jason Negro, St. John Bosco (Calif.)

Todd Peterman, DeSoto High (Texas)

Kirk Fridrich, Union High (Okla.)