The anticipation has been building for weeks now, since the West Virginia Lightning ruined the Portsmouth Warriors perfect season with a 23-21 in on July 11. The Warriors have been itching for a shot at revenge, and on Saturday, they’ll get that shot.
This weekend at Spartan Stadium, the two top-ranked teams in the Blue Collar Football League will square off in the Eastern Conference Finals. The teams split their regular-season series, with the Warriors winning 41-35 in overtime in week one, and the Lightning gaining revenge last month.
Outside the losses to each other, both teams are undefeated on the season and have combined to outscore league opponents by over 500 points in head-to-head matchups. However, only one team can advance to the BCFL championship game on Aug. 27.
Saturday marks the Warriors’ fourth-straight appearance in a conference championship game, and Portsmouth will be seeking a berth in its third straight championship game.
“I’m less worried about them this year than any other year we’ve gone into a big game,” Rice said. “Two or three weeks ago, I was a little more worried about their mentality, but their minds are right.”
That’s good news for Warriors, who were their own worst enemy in their last matchup with the Lightning. Despite out-gaining West Virginia 337-185 on offense and holding a 14-point second-half lead, Portsmouth committed a number of costly penalties at crucial points during the game.
Two such penalties came on a third-and-long late in the third quarter, when a couple of personal fouls turned a Lightning turnover-on-downs into a comeback-sparking touchdown drive.
“They should have been punting to us. We had scored on every possession, and we basically gift-wrapped them first downs,” Rice said.
Since falling to the Lightning, the Warriors have gone a perfect 4-0, including a big win over the then-undefeated Butler County Broncos. During that span, Rice has seen his ball club improve its mental focus and keep its cool. Last week against the West Virginia Storm, the Warriors kept its composure during the second half of a 45-0 blowout win — which is easier said then done in semi-pro football.
“(The Storm) did everything in their power to provoke our guys to retaliate against them and get them out of their game,” Rice said. “They did not flinch, they just played football.”
This week, Rice’s keys to the game again begin with playing smart, penalty-free football, along with taking care of the football and preventing the big play.
“We did a really good job of doing two of those in the last game (against the Lightning),” Rice said.
They’ll also need to find a way to stop the Lightning’s vaunted rushing attack, which has gashed opponents for big plays all season. They’ll also need to be wary of West Virginia’s play-action-heavy passing attack, which gashed the Warrior defense for 123 yards last month.
However, Warriors will have the advantage of playing Saturday’s game at home, where they’ve lost just one game in the last two seasons. There, they’ll have luxury of playing with their entire roster, while the Lightning will be forced to travel nearly two hours to reach Spartan Stadium. The Warriors earned home-field advantage by virtue of head-to-head point differential with the Lightning, and will host the BCFL Championship if they are able to win Saturday’s game.
“Our guys are more confident at home,” Rice said. “There’s not much travel involved. You get a little more depth…we definitely like being at home.”
The winner of Saturday’s game will face either the Broncos or the Gem City G Men in the Championship Game. After back-to-back seasons of championship losses, Rice feels that this season’s squad has what it takes to get over the hump.
“I like where we’re at. I think we’re ready, for sure.”
Reach Alex Hider at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter