PDT Sports Writer
It’s been nine years since Wheelersburg was playing for a regional championship.
On Saturday night, the No. 3 Pirates will look to break that drought as they take on No. 2 Martins Ferry in a Division V, Region 17 Semifinal at Columbus Hamilton Township’s Alumni Stadium. While this year’s Wheelersburg senior class were freshmen the last time the Pirates reached this far, coach Rob Woodward feels his team has what it takes to advance.
“We want to be playing our best football at the end of the regular season as we worked through each and every week and worked on getting better, you don’t want to drop off,” Woodward said. “I feel that’s a testament to the leadership from our captains and it carrying through each of our levels.”
Wheelersburg reached the semifinals thanks to a 40-21 home win over No. 6 Fairland in last weekend’s quarterfinals. He said the task of beating a team for a second time in a season was a challenge but one his team accomplished with proficiency.
“I was really extremely proud of our kids for stepping up to the challenge and getting after it for four quarters,” Woodward said. “I really felt that our guys gave it everything they had for four quarters and that’s what helped them prevail.”
One key to the Pirates’ victory was five interceptions off Dragon quarterback Chance Short.
This week, they will take on a Purple Riders squad that threw the ball 18 times and ran the pigskin on another 47 plays.
Martins Ferry survived an upset bid by No. 7 Westfall thanks to two touchdowns in the last 6:58 of the contest. The Purple Riders were led by quarterback Brian Styles, who was 7-of-16 passing for 58 yards and an interception but ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, will be one of the targets of the Wheelersburg defense.
“He’s a quarterback that obviously poses a threat with his feet,” Woodward said. “They’re very good up front and they’ve got some nice backs in the backfield that do a great job of blocking for one another as well as pounding the football up in there when they want to get after it.”
If there’s one thing Martins Ferry has become accustomed to this season, it’s playing from behind. Including the win over the Mustangs, the Purple Riders have comeback wins over Edison and Bellaire.
“When you face teams in the playoffs, you throw records out the window,” Woodward said. “Coaches prepare their athletes for the opportunity to win to continue to advance. Martins Ferry is an extremely well-coached team.”
When Woodward watched the tape of his team’s victory, the biggest improvement in the second half was better tackling.
“You just saw where the Wheelersburg Pirates wanting that victory more than their opponent and sealing the deal,” Woodward said.
Offensively, Eddie Miller — who was named the Division V Southeast District Offensive Player of the Year for a second-straight year earlier this week by the Associated Press — was 4-of-15 passing for 146 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in the win but made it up with his feet as he gained 195 yards and a touchdown on 2 totes.
Defensively, the Purple Riders will be in a 4-4 alignment, a scheme that hasn’t changed since the ’70s, but will adjust to spread formations. Woodward said the key will be to capitalize on every opportunity they have with the ball.
The winner of the contest will take on either No. 5 Baltimore Liberty Union or No. 1 Columbus Bishop Hartley. The Lions and Hawks will meet at Bloom-Carroll’s Carl Fell Stadium.
Cody Leist can be reached at 353-3101, ext. 294, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking sports news, follow Cody on Twitter @CodyLeist.