WEST PORTSMOUTH — Mitchell Irwin threw up a Hail Mary, and the prayer was emphatically answered on the other end by Jeffery Bishop.
From there, the football faith, hope and ultimately jubilee of victory was squarely on West’s side.
As a result, betcha haven’t seen a party like this one on the West side of Portsmouth in quite some time.
As the West Senator student section stormed the field following, as almost immediately Queen’s “We Are The Champions” blared over the loudspeakers, as West head football coach Todd Gilliland got not once but twice the traditional water cooler bath, then you knew the Senators had exorcised some frustration from as long as a decade-and-a-half.
On Friday night, the Senators captured a come-from-behind but no less dramatic 14-7 Southern Ohio Conference Division II football victory over the rival and nemesis Wheelersburg Pirates —giving West its first win over Wheelersburg since 2011, and its first SOC II championship in the sport since clear back in 2008.
Speaking of 2008, that was West’s last home win over the Pirates —and incidentally, by identically, it was also a 14-7 score.
In addition, now 9-1 West (5-0 SOC II) became the first Scioto County club to topple the Pirates (7-3, 4-1 SOC II) since 2013 —when Valley did so and won the third of its three consecutive conference championships.
Other Pirate winning streaks to bid bye-bye were their 13 wins in a row over West —and 11 straight in the SOC II.
Wheelersburg, with outright league titles in 2014 thru 2019 and again last season for now 35 all-time, was looking to make it another over the Senators in the annual Halloween Bowl —but sure enough, these Senators had other ideas at the refurbished “Rock”.
West shut out Wheelersburg in the final 41 minutes, allowed less than 200 yards of total offense, and had a Hail Mary prayer answered at the end of the opening half —followed by the football gods being oh so right with them in the second, and not for once going to deny them on this chilled-down Friday night.
“It’s a win for our community,” said Gilliland. “Tonight is just a culmination of all the hard work everybody has put in and the community has backed. I’m so excited for these boys, because this feeling of winning a league championship game is something that they are never going to forget and will have always with them. No matter what else happens in their lives, they have this.”
Although, this one went all the way down to the final snap just to be sure.
With West leading 14-7 — and trying to run out the clock with less than a minute remaining —the speedy, versatile and athletic Bishop got tripped up by a Landon Hutchinson shoestring tackle three yards short of a first down at the Pirates’ 29-yard line.
Incredibly, Wheelersburg went for a Hail Mary deep downfield pass of its own —and almost inexplicably on both counts, the Senators’ defense let Creed Warren get behind it, but Warren couldn’t hang on to Eli Jones’ pass.
Jones then hurried with back-to-back no-timeouts completions to Eric Lattimore for 13 yards and Warren for 12, putting the ball in Senator territory at the 42-yard-line.
But the senior quarterback Jones, trying for a third straight play to complete a pass with time rapidly running out, was sacked by West sophomore Kade Woods —and the Senators poured on to the field in a wild scene of long-time coming celebration.
“If it was Kade on that sack, then that was fitting. If you go back through and watch the film, he had a monster game from a defensive line standpoint,” said Gilliland. “I know early in the game he made three or four tackles for loss. He is just a big physical sophomore that played hard and gave us everything we had. That was huge because that was it.”
That it was, and now the Senators have dethroned the Pirates as kings of the SOC II.
But, it indeed took an Irwin wing and a prayer to the Queen Mary — that a Bishop put the Pirates into halftime check.
With Wheelersburg leading 7-0, the Pirates drove 11 plays from their own 15 to the West 43 in a matter of two minutes and 23 seconds —only to turn the ball over on downs after six straight Jones passes, the final three of which were incomplete.
With 15 seconds left, Bishop took a reverse 19 yards to the Pirates’ 38 —setting up West with the rare yet deep desperation toss towards the end zone.
Irwin actually extended the play as he escaped pressure, scrambled to his left and pulled the football down to avoid a Pirate defender —and even set his feet long enough, trying to square his shoulders and launch the pigskin.
Bishop, on the other end, initially and acrobatically tipped the ball up —then dramatically, somehow and someway, made the reception in the end zone as time expired.
No doubt, it was a stunning and tide-turning chain of events.
Although the extra-point kick was missed, that play revived the spirited Senators —and had to deflate the shell-shocked Pirates.
At least, it appeared so.
“It was one of those plays where we’re going throw into the end zone and let our good athletes do the work. Mitchell extends the play, and Jeffery just tips the ball to himself. But they did what we talked about all week. Big-time players make big-time plays in big games,” said Gilliland. “I know that’s cliche, but those guys have to step up and make plays like that. It was a major turning point in the game. It propelled us into the second half.”
Wheelersburg veteran head coach Rob Woodward concurred.
“That was just Bishop stepping up and making a big play for them there,” he said.
But Bishop wasn’t done making plays.
The two teams traded three-and-out possessions to open the third quarter, before Bishop intercepted a Pirate pass five plays into Wheelersburg’s next series —an Ethan Glover halfback option toss from the West 43 to its 22.
From there, and all on the ground, West marched a massive 13 plays and 78 yards with six first downs in exactly seven minutes —converting three third-and-short situations along the way.
The final of those third-down conversions resulted in Ryan Sissel’s 10-yard touchdown run off the left side —as Sissel’s sprint made it 12-7 West, with 26 seconds left in the third period.
The Senators then doubled the Pirates at 14-7 with the two-point conversion pass —an Irwin lob to Brandon Barfield.
On that drive, Irwin with two carries, Hayden Lore with three, and Sissel with the remaining 10 took a lot of wind out of the Pirates’ sails.
Before his 10-yard TD run, the six-foot and one-inch and 220-pound bruising senior Sissel had gainers of seven, nine and 11 yards —as West’s physicality against the Pirates was on full display.
And, it was nothing fancy —just the Senators playing a pure brand of smashmouth football.
For the game, Sissel carried 24 times for 153 yards, while Irwin (29 yards) and Lore (28 yards) lauded six touches apiece.
“That was a championship drive right there. Our line just put it together and our coaching staff made all the right calls and the right adjustments, and we were able to take advantage of their alignment. Then our guys executed,” said Gilliland. “When you get Ryan (Sissel) behind a line like that which is getting off the ball and blocking, he is tough to tackle. For the first time in one of these games with Wheelersburg in a long time, we were the more physical team. That drive wore them out, and the big thing on that drive was we scored. If we drive that far and not score, then that’s a momentum-breaker for us. When we punched it in, and then got the two-point conversion to get us up seven points, it was really big.”
Even more perilous for the Pirates —given their offensive struggles following their opening series.
“We weren’t able to get enough offense going in the second half, and they orchestrated their offense very well and put us in some difficult situations,” said Woodward. “They just played hard-nosed smashmouth football and hats off to them.”
Trailing 14-7, and prior to their final four-play series, the Pirates punted following a three-and-0ut —and then punted again after nine plays and moving from their own 4-yard-line to their 29, but an intentional grounding penalty pushed them back inside the 10.
Glover scored the Pirates’ only touchdown —a two-yard run on their first series, spanning five first downs and 60 yards on 11 plays and taking five full minutes off the first-quarter clock.
Connor Estep added the extra point, giving him 42-of-42 on the season, but the Pirates were shut out from there.
“West came out and played a great football game. They did what they needed to do to win and we did not,” said Woodward. “That’s a hard pill to swallow, but we have to bounce back and respond and be better in the playoffs.”
Wheelersburg rushed 38 times for 143 yards, and attempted 18 passes between Jones (13) and freshman Braylon Rucker (five), but it only generated 46 passing yards — and it punted five times.
The Pirates’ three remaining first-half possessions resulted in punts after eight and three plays, and an initial turnover on downs after 10 snaps.
But West wasn’t able to take advantage until hitting the Hail Mary, punting after three-play and six-play possessions, before two Irwin interceptions by Lattimore —who was also the game’s leading receiver with four for 30 yards.
His second interception occurred inside the red zone, after Sissel sprinted for 56 yards —the longest play by either club the entire night.
However, when West’s prayer went indeed answered by Bishop, all the football good graces were with the Senators from there.
As a result, it was a feel-good Friday night on the West side —which was a long time coming for sure.
“Fourteen years is a long time yes, and we’ve been so close on different occasions, but I think this gets us back closer to where we want to be and be in this championship game consistently,” said Gilliland. “We’re always going to remember this night, and we’re going celebrate this SOC championship.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 7 0 0 0 —7
Portsmouth West 0 6 8 0 —14
Burg— Ethan Glover, 2-yard run (Connor Estep kick), 4:59, 1st (7-0 Burg)
West— Jeffery Bishop, 38-yard pass from Mitchell Irwin (kick failed), :00, 2nd (7-6 Burg)
West — Ryan Sissel, 10-yard run (Brandon Barfield pass from Mitchell Irwin), :26, 3rd (14-7 West)
First downs 15 14
Scrimmage plays 57 51
Rushes-yards 38-143 42-243
Passing yards 46 42
Total yards 189 285
Cmp-Att-Int. 7-19-1 3-9-2
Fumbles-lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-yards 3-42 0-0
Punts-Ave. 5-29.8 4-33.8
RUSHING — Wheelersburg: Ethan Glover 11-52 TD, Derrick Lattimore 10-48, Creed Warren 6-31, Eli Jones 5-7, Jake Darling 2-6, Eric Lattimore 3-(-1), Braylon Rucker 1-0; West: Ryan Sissel 24-153 TD, Mitchell Irwin 6-29, Hayden Lore 6-28, Jeffery Bishop 2-22, Brandon Barfield 3-8, Mason Parker 1-3
PASSING —Wheelersburg: Eli Jones 6-13-0-44, Braylon Rucker 1-5-0-2, Ethan Glover 0-1-1-0; West: Mitchell Irwin 3-9-2-42 TD
RECEIVING —Wheelersburg: Eric Lattimore 4-29, Creed Warren 2-16, Ethan Glover 1-1; West: Jeffery Bishop 1-38 TD, Alex Blevins 1-6, Cole Tipton 1-(-2)