CINCINNATI — By winning in one corner of the state on Black Friday night, the Ironton Fighting Tigers will be playing in the opposite corner come Friday morning.
That’s right, as it’s another opening weekend in December —and once again Ironton’s tradition-rich Fighting Tigers are spending it in Stark County, competing for a third all-time state football championship.
And, it’s because —in Ironton head coach Trevon Pendleton’s weather world —the undefeated Fighting Tigers first withstood an early avalanche, then hit the underdog Valley View Spartans with a second-half tsunami.
Ironton erased a 21-7 second-quarter deficit, shut out the Spartans over the final 31 minutes and nine seconds, and scored the final 28 points over the final 29 minutes —all en route to a 35-21 triumph in a Division V state semifinal, which took place at Cincinnati Princeton’s Pat Muncaso Field.
“You’re either the storm or you weather the storm,” said Pendleton. “We weathered the storm for a while again, then we were the storm the second half.”
As Ironton played in its 14th all-time state semi, Friday night’s victory meant the 2022 Fighting Tigers accomplished something done by no other Ironton team in its illustrious and proud program history —winning 15 football games in a single season.
The previous single-season wins record stood at 14, which these Fighting Tigers tied with the 1989 Ironton unit —as Ironton’s only state championships in football are in 1979 and 1989.
Now, although the Ohio High School Athletic Association state playoffs have twice expanded since then, the Fighting Tigers are back in the Division V state championship tilt —for the third time in four years.
It is Ironton’s 11th all-time state championship game appearance, and ultimately it was a 1999 repeat of sorts.
That’s when Ironton and Valley View played in a state semifinal at Cincinnati Princeton —and those Fighting Tigers roared back from a 21-3 deficit to triumph 34-27.
On Friday night, and just a stone’s throw away from Interstate 75, history had a way of repeating itself —along the northern Cincinnati beltway.
These Fighting Tigers trailed shockingly 21-7 almost 17 minutes in, as Ironton allowed four pass completions of 17 yards or more, threw an interception and allowed a 41-yard Spartan return, and gave up a special teams touchdown on a poor snap on a punt attempt.
A second-quarter drive of eight plays also resulted in a turnover on downs.
But three explosive plays by the Fighting Tigers, including two touchdowns over an entire quarter-and-a-half, totally turned the tide —as Ironton forced three Spartan punts over the final 24 minutes and 54 seconds, along with three second-half interceptions.
“You just keep playing. If we kept playing hard, we knew some things would happen for us,” said Pendleton, the fifth-year coach. “We just focused and locked in. We realized what was at stake, that in the first half we did some things to beat ourselves. We reeled it back in the second half. Honestly, it wasn’t a lot of adjustments. It was just to keep battling. We knew we were close on some things, some things just didn’t go our way, but we just kept battling and finally momentum things went our way there in the second half. A lot of what happened tonight was our kids having faith and belief in what we do, and never giving up.”
The momentum flipped for Ironton in the opening half actually, when trailing 21-7 and under six minutes remaining —left-handed quarterback Tayden Carpenter completed a rollout pass that direction to C.J. Martin, which went for 54 yards and down to the Spartans’ three-yard-line.
“That play really changed the momentum,” said Pendleton.
On the next play, the Jaquez Keyes running show started —as he scored to make it 21-14, with Evan Williams’ second of five extra-point kicks.
Then, as Ironton opened the second half with possession, Keyes sprinted 72 yards to paydirt on the third period’s first play — only a dozen seconds in and with Williams’ third extra point tying it at 21-21.
“Big time players make big-time plays in big-time games. And he (Keyes) was a load to bring down,” said Pendleton, of his two-time all-Southeast District Division V first team running back. “Couldn’t be more proud of him. That kid has worked so hard, and people just don’t know about the adversity he has handled and overcame, and the injuries he has dealt with. Top-notch kid.”
Keyes rushed 13 times for 150 yards and three touchdowns, as his two-yard dive with 3:52 remaining made it 35-21 —capping an impressive 11-play, 46-yard and six-minute scoring march.
As Ironton ended up with almost 28 minutes in time of possession, two Spartan second-half possessions resulted in a three-and-out — followed by Valley View’s final two drives, which ended up in the interception arms of Cole Freeman and Braden Schreck.
On the Spartans’ final series of the opening half, they drove eight plays then punted —before an 11-play four-minute third-quarter series, which saw an Austin Stidham halfback pass be intercepted in the end zone by Landen Wilson.
Defensively, linebackers Lincoln Barnes (seven tackles) and Trevor Carter (nine tackles) paced the Fighting Tigers, as Carter forced a fumble and Freeman recovered on the game’s opening play —a Jake Clark carry for Valley View.
Ironton immediately took advantage only three minutes in —as Carpenter capped a seven-play and 31-yard drive with a two-yard sneak.
Carpenter carried 10 times for 30 yards, as Amari Felder finished with 67 yards on 15 totes —and Aiden Young made four receptions for 42 yards.
With Williams going 5-of-5 on extra points, all but one of the Fighting Tigers’ top defensive AND offensive stat stuffers for Friday night were seniors.
The Fighting Tigers compensated for the Spartans’ defense on six-foot four-inch senior wide receiver Ty Perkins —the Southeast District Division V Offensive Player of the Year, who was often double-teamed and even triple-teamed, and held to only two receptions for 16 yards.
“We always talk about your seniors stepping up and making plays in big moments like this,” said Pendleton. “We’re in a situation where we have so much talent on this team. There’s not enough footballs to go around, and everybody doesn’t get showcased on every night, but we always tell our kids to stay engaged because you don’t when your time is coming. You have to be ready to make plays when your opportunity arises.”
Those seniors included Carpenter, who completed 15 passes on 25 attempts for 249 yards —and the go-ahead 53-yard stop-and-go pitch-and-catch with sophomore Shaun Terry, with only a minute and 42 seconds remaining in the third.
After making the reception at around the Valley View 45, Terry took the rock to the house —after breaking four or five tackles.
With Williams’ fourth extra-point kick, the Fighting Tigers took the 28-21 lead — which they refused to relinquish.
Perhaps Carpenter’s key completion of the night was a fourth-quarter four-yarder to Carter, which was the seventh play of Ironton’s final scoring series — and which converted a 4th-down-and-1 at the Spartans’ 21.
Keyes converted the final touchdown, the Fighting Tigers completed the comeback, and —officially —fellow 15-0 South Range went on the state championship clock.
The undefeated Raiders racked up 35 points in their state semifinal as well, but they pitched a convincing 35-0 shutout of Liberty Benton at Clyde.
Ironton and South Range will play for the Division V state championship —on Friday morning at 10:30 a.m. inside Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
For Pendleton and his charges, perhaps the third time in Northeast Ohio in four years will finally, and indeed be, the charm.
“Not sure if anything makes us different. It’s a new year, and we’re Fighting Tigers just like the last few teams that have played for the state championship. I can tell you this, though. Come Friday, and win or lose or draw, we’re going to come out swinging from the first whistle to the last whistle,” said the coach. “Looking forward to it.”
* * *
Valley View 7 14 0 0 — 21
Ironton 7 7 14 7—35
I — Tayden Carpenter, 2-yard run (Evan Williams kick), 8:59, 1st (7-0 I)
VV — Jake Clark, 1-yard run (Caden Phillips kick), 5:04, 1st (7-7 tie)
VV — Austin Stidham, 42-yard pass from Caden Henson (Caden Phillips kick), 8;30, 2nd (14-7 VV)
VV — Austin Stidham, 3-yard fumble recovery return (Caden Phillips kick), 7:09, 2nd (21-7 VV)
I — Jaquez Keyes, 3-yard run (Evan Williams kick), 5:04, 2nd (21-14 VV)
I — Jaquez Keyes, 72-yard run (Evan Williams kick), 11:48, 3rd (21-21 tie)
I — Shaun Terry, 53-yard pass from Tayden Carpenter (Evan Williams kick), 1:42, 3rd (28-21 I)
I — Jaquez Keyes, 2-yard run (Evan Williams kick), 3:52, 4th (35-21 I)
First downs 14 20
Scrimmage plays 48 68
Rushes-yards 25-58 43-237
Passing yards 182 249
Total yards 240 486
Cmp-Att-Int. 13-23-3 15-25-1
Fumbles-lost 1-1 1-1
Penalties-yards 2-7 12-123
Punts-Ave. 3-40 2-39
RUSHING —Valley View: Jake Clark 14-56 TD, Austin Stidham 3-11, Caden Henson 8-(-9); Ironton: Jaquez Keyes 13-150 3TD, Amari Felder 15-67, Tayden Carpenter 10-30 TD, Landen Wilson 3-4, Team 2-(-14)
PASSING — Valley View: Caden Henson 13-22-2-182 TD, Austin Stidham 0-1-1-0; Ironton: Tayden Carpenter 15-25-1-249 TD
RECEIVING—Valley View: Austin Stidham 6-127 TD, Jed Lynch 3-21, Jake Clark 3-7, Troy Hypes 1-27; Ironton: Shaun Terry 3-73 TD, Aiden Young 4-42, C.J. Martin 2-60, Landen Wilson 2-55, Ty Perkins 2-16, Trevor Carter 1-4, Amari Felder 1-(-1)