In 2014, southern Ohio couldn’t have asked for a better game to kick off the high school football season. The Portsmouth Trojans and the Valley Indians combined for 904 yards of total offense and 12 touchdowns in the first game of the season. Alex Loop’s 15-yard touchdown run tied the score in the final minutes of the game, and Bryce Romanello added the extra point to give Valley a 41-40 win.
The big plays and quick scoring of last year’s season opener made for one of the most thrilling games of 2014. However, Portsmouth head coach Aaron Duncan hopes that history doesn’t repeat itself on Thursday night.
“We don’t want to have to get into a shootout with a team as explosive as Valley,” Duncan said.
Duncan has spent the offseason reworking the Portsmouth offense from a shotgun-based triple option to a more traditional pro-style offense. On Thursday, he hopes his team can control the clock and keep the Indians off the field.
But against Valley, that’s a very tall task.
The Indians return all but two starters from last season’s squad that made its way all the way to the state semifinals. Valley’s class of 19 seniors have a combined record of 34-5 in their three seasons, perhaps one of the most successful classes in school history.
Nearly all of Valley’s playmakers from last season will be on the field again on Thursday evening — Bryan Rolfe (2014 D-VI SE District Offensive Player of the Year), tight end Bryce Romanello, running back Blake Howard and receiver Derek Burk are all set for their senior seasons. Those four players combined for nearly 500 yards of offense and three touchdowns last year against Portsmouth.
“They’re battle-tested. They’ve been there,” Duncan said.
“This year, on paper it seems like we have more experience, but you have to go down and play. No one is going to just line up and give you anything,” Valley head coach Darren Crabtree said.
In order to neutralize Valley’s playmakers, Duncan plans to hit the Indians hard up the gut with his strong stable of running backs. Austin Mullins, Derray Richardson and Austin Hollins are all more than capable of touting the rock behind a huge offensive line, led by senior Warren Goddard.
“We have to sustain long drives and capitalize with touchdowns,” Duncan said. “We want to limit the time that Bryan Rolfe can take that offense on the field.”
In the passing game, sophomore starter Cole Lowery will target senior receiver Luke Purdy, who caught three touchdown last season against Valley. He finished the night with six catches for 147 yards, establishing himself as one of the Trojans’ top targets in 2014.
On defense, Duncan’s plan to stop Valley’s playmakers is simple.
“As much as a the game has evolved, it still comes down to…tackling,” he said.
Last season, poor Trojan tackling led to a number of big plays for the Valley offense, especially on the Indians’ final drive. Much of Portsmouth’s training camp has been spent going back to the basics, and the effects are beginning to show.
“Defensively, they seem to be more fundamentally sound. They’re tackling seems much better in their scrimmages,” Crabtree said.
Last year, Portsmouth receivers torched the Valley secondary to the tune of 216 passing yards and three touchdowns. But their early-season struggles forged the Indian defensive backs together. By the end of the 2014 season, Valley’s defensive backfield was one of the team’s strengths. Last season, Rolfe and Howard combined to intercept seven passes, and both will remain a factor on defense in 2015.
Both coaches agree that special teams will loom large in Thursday’s game, and with good reason. A Portsmouth missed extra point early in the fourth quarter proved to be the difference in last season’s opener. Romanello, who splits time between Valley’s football and soccer teams, booted 40 extra points in the 2014 regular season and will kick for the Indians again this season. Portsmouth’s Zach DeLotell will handle kicking duties for the Trojans in 2015.
Thursday also marks a milestone in the careers of both coaches. Duncan, a Portsmouth grad and long-time assistant, while make his head coaching debut after being hired last December.
“I’m anxious. There’s always nerves there,” he said. “I’m just excited to see how the kids step up to this challenge before them, because Valley is a tall order.”
On the other sideline, Crabtree will put on the coaching headset for the first time since undergoing major heart surgery last October. Though he missed the Indians’ final seven games of the season, Valley was able to capture its first-ever regional championship in his absence.
“The kids think this is a game that we should go down and win. It’s not a game where we want to go down and play our best and see what happens,” Crabtree said. “Coming in, with the experienced players that we have, we feel like it’s a game that’s ours to take care of if we do what we’re supposed to.”
Kickoff for Thursday’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Portsmouth High School’s Trojan Coliseum.
Reach Alex Hider at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter