Each high school football contest in Ohio is always important, no matter who the opponent may be.
Whether it’s earning respect, playoff points, or simple pride, each and every game played is a fight to help improve a program’s situation in the eyes of others across the region and the state.
However, when conference play heats up, especially in SOC play, the stakes ratchet up several notches due to the immense traditions that each school and program holds inside the conference.
One of those matchups that best represents that very intensity and pride is the annual meeting between the football programs between the Minford Falcons and the West Senators, which has proven to be one of the tighter contests annually on the SOC II slate.
Need proof? In five out of the last seven years, the annual rivalry affair between the two schools has come down to 11 points or less, with four out of those seven affairs being decided by no more than a touchdown.
The rivalry, however, has been at its highest the last two seasons, where back-to-back three-point overtime affairs have set the tone for the intense matchup. In 2015, West emerged victorious in a 12-9 triple-overtime victory that proved to be a grudge match, while Minford emerged as the victors in a 19-16 overtime thriller.
And while the year 2017 is, indeed, a new year, West’s Ben Johnson and Minford’s Jesse Ruby expect nothing less than a hard-fought matchup that will represent the best of the best on both sides of the coin.
“I’ve coached at Minford for 12 years now, and it just seems like every year, you can throw out the records, because it always proves to be a tight football game between both teams,” Ruby said. “A lot of times, homefield advantage may play a role in that, and sometimes, it doesn’t. We expect to see a tough, gritty football team, and we’re going to try to match that intensity on Friday evening. We’ve got a challenge in front of us.”
“I expect a great battle from Minford,” Johnson said. “They’re going to be fired up and well-coached. They’re coming in with a couple of wins in a row here and a lot of confidence. Additionally, it seems like no matter what the circumstances have been coming into the contest with West and Minford, the contest has always proven to have been a hard-fought, physical, and well-contested game. We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game, that’s for sure.”
With a 5-0 record and a No. 5 overall ranking in the Ohio AP Division V Poll that has come from three gritty, come-from-behind victories in the second half of affairs against Fairland, Portsmouth, and Raceland (Ky.), the Senators certainly have as much momentum going into this year’s affair since Bob Shaffer’s 9-1 campaign in 2011 — and rightfully so.
“It really has been a great start for us this year,” Johnson said. “The guys have worked hard and have found ways to win. We’ve had all different kinds of games, from games where we’ve had to come from behind (Fairland, Portsmouth, Raceland) to games where we’ve led the whole time (Wellston). We’re just getting a lot of big plays from all three phases of the game.”
As one of the key cogs in West’s blistering start to the year, Josh Berry has certainly proven to be a leader and a reliable figure in the offensive, defensive, and special teams aspects of the affair. With 46 tackles, three interceptions, two sacks, and 474 all-purpose yards to his credit in 2017, the Southeast Ohio Sports Talk Midseason Defensive Player of the Year has certainly provided much of the inspiration and passion that the Senators have brought to the table on a weekly basis.
“Josh is having a great year so far,” Johnson said. “He’s a very versatile guy. He plays offense and defense, and returns kicks. He can play defensive back, linebacker, running back, receiver, and can even play quarterback, if need be. He’s a really hard worker. He has a knack for making big plays, he does everything you ask him, and it shows on Friday nights.”
Speaking of big plays, the West defense has made plenty of those in 2017. In fact, the Senators, who have forced 13 turnovers while committing only five of their own for a plus-eight takeaway margin, have won the turnover battle in every affair that West has participated in this season.
“Our defense, as a whole, has really played well all year long,” Johnson said. “They’ve come up with big plays when we needed them to, and have caused a lot of turnovers. It’s been a variety of guys that have taken turns stepping up for us and making those big plays, and that’s how we’ve been so successful on that side of the football. We don’t put a whole lot of weaknesses out there. Each guy can make plays.”
“West is tenacious on defense,” Ruby said. “Their defensive line really gets after it, and their linebackers are really good at reading their keys. For us, we’ve got to block the people we’re supposed to, play assignment football, and run our offense in the way that we want to. Hopefully, when we call on guys to make a play, they will step up for us like they have been these past couple of weeks and make the necessary plays for us.”
In addition to making crucial and critical plays in key moments, Minford will have to show the same progression that it has shown offensively since its affair against Nelsonville-York. The Falcons scored 26 points in the second half against the Buckeyes, and since then, have added 33 and 47 points, respectively, in victories over Northwest and Williamsburg.
“Winning the turnover battle and the penalty battle is a critical part of the game of football,” Ruby said. “In games that we’ve lost, we’ve made mistakes that have hurt us, and in games that we’ve won, we’ve won the turnover battle. West has a very good defense, and when they’ve created turnovers, their offense has capitalized and taken advantage of those mistakes. We have to limit those mistakes and take advantage of any mistakes that West makes. If they give us the football from a turnover, we need to be able to take advantage, because every drive and every point matters.”
In their victories, the Falcons have used Breydan Tilley — who is a threat to go to the house from anywhere on the field — to free other players up, as Darius Jordan and Jordan Bowen have emerged as go-to threats in recent weeks. Minford signal-caller Kelton Kelley has showed improved poise and decision-making in recent weeks, while Mason Brisker and Casey Gaines give Minford’s offense the balance that it needs to continue to make strides as the season moves into its second half.
“It seems like whenever we’ve called on somebody, they’ve been able to step up for us,” Ruby said. “There’s been times where teams focus on a kid and try to take him out of a game, and that has opened up other opportunities for guys to shine. That’s what you look for from a lot of your experienced players, which is to take advantage of an opportunity when it comes. So far, we’ve been really successful with it, and we’re hoping that we can continue that this week. We were tested earlier in the year, and I believe that through those tests, our kids have grown and gotten better as a team and as a unit. We’ve found some things that have allowed our offense to get going, and we’re hoping that we can keep the success going and grow on the successes that we’ve had coming into this game against West.”
Defensively, Minford has had to adjust on the fly with over half of its starters playing new positions against opposing high school competition. However, the development on that end of the field, Ruby says, has been improved, as evidenced by the 33 points Minford has given up over its last nine quarters of action.
“We’ve got some guys who are playing some new positions, so it’s understandably taken a while for them to adjust,” Ruby said. “Then additionally, we’ve been playing against a different offensive system each and every week. It’s all about kids getting comfortable with where they’re at, learning how to read their keys, and flying around to the football. Fortunately for us, we’ve really made some strides these last two weeks.”
If the affair happens to come down to a field goal, both teams have kickers with excellent legs, as West’s Drew Cassidy and Minford’s Talen Coriell have proven over the course of their careers. Cassidy, in particular, has made four of his five field goal attempts — with all four of those tries proving to be vital differences in either the final score or in momentum-switches that allowed the Senators to emerge victorious.
“Drew’s done a great job,” Johnson said. “He’s made all of his extra points this season. Each of the field goals that he’s made have been crucial, and he’s also been doing a great job of punting the football and helping our defense out with field position. It’s a huge part of the game. Anytime you have an excellent kicker, it just makes your team that much harder to stop.”
With two passionate football programs set to do battle in conference play, and with key playoff points on the line in a contest that could very well deliver plenty of them for the victor, both Johnson and Ruby know that their respective units will have to be on their game on Friday evening in a thrilling rivalry affair that has seen more than its fair share of twists and turns.
“Minford’s very explosive on offense,” Johnson said. “They’ve got playmakers all over the field, and they put up a lot of points, as the 33 points against state-ranked Nelsonville-York suggests. With the athletes that Minford has, it’s very scary because they can go the distance on any play. We’re going to have to be up for the challenge, that’s for sure.”
“Our goals this week are to make sure that we line up correctly, read our keys, and limit the big plays,” Ruby said. “(Garrett) Hurd is a tremendous running back, and (Dylan) Bradford is very athletic. If Bradford gets a crease to take off and run, he’ll make things happen. As for (Josh) Berry, we’ll have to account for where he and Hurd line up, because West will use them both in different ways. If we know where they’re at and understand how they can hurt us where they line up, that will be critical to our own success as a unit.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7