WATERFORD — Before the East Tartans’ football program even made the trip to Waterford for its first round playoff affair against the Waterford Wildcats, James Gifford was already pleased with what he had seen in practice.
The third-year head coach — who came into the affair saying that this past week was arguably the best that the team had practiced all year — had players sacrificing their carries, and their bodies, in an attempt to do something that the school had never done before. This example was best proven when Braiden Haney lined up as an interior lineman on scout team defense to simulate the pressure, and the type of look, that star defensive lineman Teddy Smith would give the Wildcats.
However, as the saying always goes, there’s more to the story.
East, who has always been an underdog of sorts in the community, had another reason the moniker when the entire Tartans’ football program took a peak at some of the comments that had been spreading around the Southeastern Ohio Preps Forum, which has really become a popular topic of discussion across the Southeast Ohio landscape.
However, instead of getting down on what they read, East used what they read as a point of motivation. And that motivation proved to be all that the Tartans needed on Friday evening.
On the second offensive series of the contest, Waterford’s Braden Bellville broke off a 44-yard run on the second play of the game, and immediately followed that up with an eight-yard touchdown run that put the Wildcats up by an 8-0 tally with 9:04 to play in the opening quarter of action.
But through adversity, East came out on the other side.
From the second offensive and defensive series on forward, the Tartans executed their gameplans on both sides of the football to near perfection, and a monstrous effort from Ethan Carver (16 carries, 109 yards, two touchdowns) along with the best qualities one could hope to see, including grit, sacrifice, and pure toughness, allowed East to claim the school’s first-ever playoff victory with a 16-8 victory over Waterford on Friday evening in Waterford in the first round of the OHSAA Division VII football playoffs.
In Gifford’s eyes, the relentless attitude that his players had was the difference.
“The guys wanted it,” Gifford said. “They knew they could get it. We’re not satisfied with this one. We’re ready to go. For three years in that weight room, it’s been ‘Why not us? Why can’t Sciotoville East win a state championship?’ Some people are going to look at it, and say, ‘Come on, you won a first round playoff game. What’s the big deal?’ However, we’re going to go and see where this thing takes us. We’ve got a good group.”
After going three-and-out on its first possession, Bellville showed off the talents that made the junior an 1,800-yard rusher over the 2017 campaign as the running back darted the previously mentioned 44 yards down the home sideline, then ran through a pair of missed tackles en route to the eight-yard score that put Waterford ahead.
But after that initial scoring drive, it was the Original Tartans who would be driving the ball down the throat of the No. 2-ranked team in Region 27, not the other way around.
Following back-to-back three-and-outs (one each from East and Waterford), the Tartans immediately showed off their skills up front as East went on a nine-play drive where the Tartans advanced all the way from its own 18 yard line to the Waterford 40. Unfortunately, a false start penalty stymied an otherwise commanding drive that featured a 20-yard run by Kyle Flannery and a 14-yard pass from Douthat to Ethan Carver on a nicely executed slip screen play on third-and-11, as the Tartans turned the ball over on downs.
Still, Carver, along with Haney, Chandler Carver, and a strong East defense, kept pushing the envelope.
In addition to holding Peyton Stephens to just 5-of-16 passing and sacking the signal-caller four times on the night, the Tartans held Bellville to just 43 rushing yards on 16 carries after Waterford’s opening series in a truly dominating defensive display where all 11 guys played their roles in a flawless manner. Stephens, in fact, was pressured on over 80 percent of his dropbacks, which, more often than not, led to desperation heaves rather than crisp, accurate throws.
“We could go down the line,” Gifford said. “Even from the sidelines, I believe that the guys were in the game, as well as the fans. It was just a total team effort. This is what it’s all about. I mean, this is why you come in the weight room during the summer in June, July, and August whenever everybody else is going to Kings Island and Cedar Point and all of that stuff, and you’re wondering why you’re getting up in the morning to lift. This is it. This is the result. The kids believe it, they’ve bought into it, and we’ll see where it takes us.”
With the defense continuing to do its part, the East offensive line continued to do its part by bullying Waterford all over the hashes, as the Tartans, again, went on an eight-play drive. But after obtaining a manageable third-and-three from the Wildcats’ 23, two consecutive quarterback sneaks were stopped without much surge. With Waterford maintaining an 8-0 advantage with 8:50 to play in the half, the Tartans needed just one big play.
And just two plays into Waterford’s enusing offensive series, East got that play when Stephens, behind another great pass rush from Chandler Carver, Ethan Carver, and Haney, threw an errant pass off to the Waterford side of the field. Ethan Gifford, who read the pass all the way, not only picked off the pass, but took the ball in stride as the senior linebacker sprinted down to the Waterford 5. That set up Ethan Carver, who broke multiple tackles on each of his two carries en route to showing no give up, including on the two-yard touchdown run that ultimately turned the momentum in East’s favor. Douthat followed up Carver’s touchdown run by rifling a bullet to Hatcher in the middle of the end zone en route to tying the score at eight aside with 7:24 to play in the opening half.
“I told Ethan that this would be his game,” Gifford said. “But it goes a lot deeper than that. Ethan Carver was the guy this week, but it took all of the other backs to be unselfish. This is the first week that you could see that unselfishness from all of the backs, and this is the result. They were unselfish, they blocked, they didn’t take a play off, and again, this is the result.”
After pooch-kicking the ball, the Tartans had to hold off a strong charge from Waterford, who answered the scoring drive with runs of nine and 12 yards from Bellville to advance all the way down to the East 12. But with their backs against the wall, the Tartans didn’t relent, as East stopped Bellville for no gain and forced Stephens into two incomplete passes to force Waterford into a turnover on downs.
Then, after trading punts, the Tartans re-obtained possession, and with 25 seconds left in the first half, made a strong charge toward paydirt as Douthat — who completed nine of his 11 passes for 108 yards on the evening — found Hatcher for a 12-yard gain and obtained further yardage on a personal foul from Waterford.
Even after a personal foul pushed East back to the Waterford 34 on the next play, the senior signal-caller found his favorite target for 27 yards on the ensuing play following the personal foul, with Hatcher seemingly sliding out of bounds with 1.8 seconds to play. However, the clock continued to run and time was not restored, which meant that East had to settle for the 8-8 halftime deadlock.
The Tartans, who were already annoyed by the comments seen on the Southeastern Ohio Preps Forum, used that sparked fuel at the end of the half from the clock issue to breath life into its second half attack. East opened up the third quarter by going on another eight-play drive, then, after that drive was halted, responded with another huge defensive stand where a Haney sack forced a desperation option pitch on fourth down that was ultimately short of the marker and was recovered by East.
But after yet another assault toward Waterford territory was stopped, it was clear that another big play was needed.
So it was only fitting when the senior class teamed up to make all kinds of big plays to seal the deal.
After starting a drive from its own 11 with 10:13 to play in the football game, Waterford obtained two first downs to start its drive, including a huge third-down conversion from Bellville on a third-and-one that had the Wildcats in business.
However, Brady Douthat changed all of that in a hurry with one huge stick.
On second-and-nine, Stephens found Rhys Thatcher on a slant pattern that seemingly gave Waterford enough yardage to pick up another first down. But Douthat, who read the football all the way, came up and made a picture-perfect football play by sticking Thatcher just as the receiver took his second step on the grass. Douthat’s hit forced a fumble that East easily recovered, and just like that, the Tartans had turned the momentum once again.
“I appreciate all of the people that post on Southeastern Ohio Preps,” Gifford said. “As a coach, I appreciate all of the comments because I don’t have to fire my guys up. They do it. So we took all of those quotes, and we actually printed them off on a paper, and we read it. We read it before the game and we read it at halftime. So this ‘East isn’t physical enough,’ or ‘East is fool’s gold,’ and all that, well, ok. We got ya. We hear ya.”
With a Waterford line that had fought hard, but was clearly worn from the punishment that Ethan Carver and the East offensive line had dished out, the Tartans wasted no time taking advantage.
In the money drive of all money drives for the Tartans in 2017, Carver ran five times for 25 yards, and, two plays after a critical seven-yard quarterback keeper from Douthat gave East a first-and-goal situation at the nine, the senior running back took a carry down the East side and capped off the six-play, 33-yard drive with a six-yard plunge to give the Tartans a 14-8 lead with 4:46 to play. Carver then added the two-point conversion run to officially put Waterford on its heels.
From that point, it was up to East’s pass coverage to stay disciplined and do its job. And on Waterford’s last pair of series, the Tartans did exactly that, as Flannery and Douthat combined to dislodge a ball from the hands of Nick Fouss on third down, while Devon Stevens knocked away a Stephens pass on fourth down. Then, after running the clock down to 22.5 seconds, East didn’t even give Stephens a chance to find any receivers as all four of Stephens’ passes fell harmlessly to the ground as the Tartans sealed the deal in the playoffs for the first time ever.
With the victory, East will move on to the regional semifinals, where a matchup against Hannibal River will occur at a place and time to be determined next Friday.
“We look forward to it,” Gifford said. “We look forward to another week of practice. What is this, Week 1? That’s the way I feel. I’ve got tons of energy, and so do the guys. To watch them play as hard as they did is just all you can ask for as a coach. It’s awesome.”
But for at least a day, and during parts of the weekend, a celebration should certainly be called into order for a program, and for a school, that didn’t even know if it would exist anymore just a decade and a half ago.
“Sciotoville’s a bunch of winners,” Gifford said. “They said that they were going to take the school away, and a bunch of Sciotoville guys, who are winners, said, ‘No, you’re not.’ That’s before I was around. They come back, they took the school over, and did it themselves. We really strive on having that same attitude within our program. We like being the underdog. There’s 77 boys in our school, and 44 of them are in this football program. Then, if you count the band members and the cheerleaders, there aren’t many students left in the school that weren’t here (Friday evening). It is a total team effort. It’s a special feeling. This game will always mean a lot to all of us.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT