CHILLICOTHE — Over the course of its storied history as a football program, the Wheelersburg Pirates have put together several outstanding efforts that have been remembered throughout the course of time.
However, very few of those wins, especially at this stage of the playoff game, can even rival what the 2017 version of the Wheelersburg football program was able to do on Friday evening.
In the opening half of play, the Pirates’ offense, stymied by penalties, three turnovers, and a gritty defensive showing by Columbus Academy that held Wheelersburg to 84 yards in the first half, seemed to have all the momentum as 13 first-half points from the Vikings — all coming off of the three Pirate turnovers — had Wheelersburg in a position that it hadn’t been in all year as the Pirates trailed 13-0 at halftime.
But Wheelersburg, as they have done all season long, just found a way.
On the second play of Columbus Academy’s first offensive series, Avery Donini laid a monstrous hit on Herman Moultrie III that forced a critical fumble at the Vikings’ 36, which Jeremy Cooper pounced on, and from there, the Pirates showed the Vikings the true definition of walking the plank by going to hat-on-hat football.
Behind a true display of force, Wheelersburg, behind an outstanding effort from an offensive line that showed no relent in the second half, obtained 313 yards of total offense in the second half alone thanks to a strong power running game that featured the return of Dominic Reyes from injury, along with fellow strongholds Xander Carmichael and Evan Horsley.
The trio combined to rush for 272 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries, and a beautifully-placed onside kick by Jalen Miller that was recovered by the Pirates led to a brilliant 42-yard touchdown connection from Carmichael to Horsley on the former’s only pass attempt of the game that gave Wheelersburg (12-0) the lead for good as an amazing 35-3 second-half spurt allowed the Pirates to move on to its fifth straight Division V, Region 19 Final appearance with a 35-16 win over Columbus Academy (9-3) on Friday evening at Herrnstein Field on the campus on Chillicothe High School.
For Rob Woodward, the power running formations that Wheelersburg worked out of in the second half, and the manner in which the Pirates executed them in, is a direct result of the preparation that his players have put in since the start of the season.
“What we did in the second half is something that we have practiced since Week 1,” Woodward said. “It’s just something that we are always trying to perfect, and we’ve added little things to it so that we can go to it. We’re always trying to have that in our back pocket. It’s so gratifying to see all of the work that the kids put in on that stuff come to fruition on there on the field in a situation where it’s needed. What a great job by the kids in executing.”
Initially, however, the contest proved to be a struggle for Wheelersburg.
Behind the strong leg of Sam Massick — who forced the Pirates to start at or inside its own 20 on five of its seven drives during the first half of play — and a stingy Columbus Academy defense that proved to be effective at setting the edge, the Pirates had difficulty even making it past its own 30 yard line as Moultrie III, along with Dorrian Moultrie, proved to be plenty effective.
Wheelersburg, however, held strong on the defensive side.
After allowing a first-down completion from Matt Saling to Chris Boyle for 10 yards that moved the chains, the Pirates rallied to force two punts, including a three-and-out on Columbus Academy’s second offensive series behind Chris Bailey’s fourth sack of the year on third down.
But after punting the ball away, the Vikings’ offense got to take the field as if they had never left it as a muffed punt return allowed Columbus Academy to take over at the Wheelersburg 34. From there, it only took three plays for the Vikings to strike as Columbus Academy’s Josh Pearson took a handoff toward the far pylon and sprinted into the end zone to give the Vikings an early 7-0 lead with 4:39 to play in the first quarter of action.
“When the game started there, we had a fumble that we had on a punt return by Makya, but that happens when you’re playing aggressive and coming up to catch punts in order to keep the ball from rolling further into our own end,” Woodward said. “That’s something that Columbus Academy was able to capitalize on. When they fumbled, we were ready to capitalize on their mistake, and Makya, through his own resiliency and mental toughness, came back to pick a pass off later on.”
Still, Wheelersburg showed flashes of brilliance offensively.
After starting its fourth offensive series of the football game from its own 12, Trent Salyers sprinted for 12 yards on a second-and-four to give the Pirates a first down.
Then, on the next play, Salyers found his favorite target, Tanner Holden, for what seemingly looked to be the highlight reel play of all of Tanner Holden’s highlight-reel plays as the junior broke and dodged numerous tackles on his way to a 70-yard touchdown reception.
Unfortunately, the spectacular touchdown reception was called back for holding, and after Salyers found Cole Lowery for a first down at the Wheelersburg 45, a first-down run by Ashton Clevenger was called back due to a block in the back, which extinguished the Pirates’ momentum. Two plays later, Moultrie III stepped in front of a Salyers pass and picked it off, returning it to the ‘Burg 44, and a 17-yard run by the 5-11, 190-pound senior set up Massick from well within his field goal range as Columbus Academy extended its lead to a 10-0 tally.
Still, Wheelersburg’s defense, despite the deficit, continued to give the Pirate faithful hope. Wheelersburg withstood a nine-play Columbus Academy drive that commenced from the Vikings’ 26 and forced a punt, then, after a pick from Dorrian Moultrie, halted the Vikings’ final drive as Columbus Academy, again, settled for a field goal from Massick. Despite seeing Columbus Academy control 8:15 of the second quarter clock, Chad Johnson’s defensive unit had given up just six points, and the Pirates trailed just 13-0 at halftime.
“Trent Salyers has been in the shotgun formation the whole year, and has probably gone under center once per game over the entire season, but he executed those plays. Then, to have Dominic Reyes back and running the football extremely hard, along with Xander Carmichael, Evan Horsley, and Ashton Clevenger just powering it up through the teeth of the defense, was just excellent to watch. However, all of that was set up by outstanding defensive play, and the fact that the defense, with all of the bad stuff that happened in the first half, continued to put us in a situation that allowed us to be successful.”
But knowing that the season was on the line, Woodward, his staff, and his players knew that they had to make adjustments offensively if they wanted the desired result.
“In the second half, the line talked about what they thought that they could do and what they were seeing, and we talked to them about what we were seeing,” Woodward said. “We had some miscues happen in some different areas in the first half, and we were able to switch it up and go to our power game.”
Moultrie III, who had more success in the first half from a rushing standpoint than any back had against the Wheelersburg defense all season by collecting 42 yards on 11 carries — which speaks volumes about how stout the rush defense truly is for the Pirates considering that mark is still less than four yards per carry — had hopes to break out in the second half.
Those hopes were immediately dashed on the second play from scrimmage in the third quarter when Donini, coming off of the edge, popped Moultrie III and sent him into the air, which forced the senior to fumble the football. Cooper, along with a host of Pirates, fell on the ball at the Columbus Academy 36 to secure the recovery, and from there, the game was on.
After gaining a modest six yards on its first three plays, a hard count drew the Vikings’ defensive unit offsides on a fourth-and-four, which gave Wheelersburg a first down.
Following that, not even a holding call could deny the Pirates of a first down, as Horsley took off for 10 yards on a third-and-12 and Carmichael, on a fourth-and-two, got two yards and an eyelash to pick up another critical fourth down conversion. Horsley then ran the final 15 yards to paydirt via a nine-yard run and the sophomore’s six-yard touchdown scamper that cut the lead to 13-7 with 7:38 to play in the third quarter of play.
“Evan is a downhill runner that really knifes up in the hole, and has made some big plays,” Woodward said. “He did that again tonight, as he has throughout the season.”
But after getting 36 gritty yards, Wheelersburg, again, had to withstand another march. On an incomplete pass, two personal fouls in one play — a roughing the passer penalty and a targeting call — gave Columbus Academy 30 yards in one play, and Saling found Dorrian Moultrie for gains of nine and 12 yards to set the Vikings up with first-and-goal from the Wheelersburg 2.
However, another huge stand from the Pirates’ defense forced another field goal, and despite trailing by a 16-7 margin with 2:56 to play in the third quarter, the momentum remained with Wheelersburg.
“Columbus Academy was inside the five there, and we hold them to a field goal,” Woodward said. “That was a huge win for our defense right there.”
And on the very first offensive play following the ensuing kickoff, the Pirates wasted no time displaying that momentum as Reyes — seeing his first action since an injury in Week 7 against Waverly put the senior out for four weeks — sprinted down the near sideline for 60 yards to immediately put Wheelersburg back in the red zone. Then, after an eight-yard run from Horsley, Carmichael got to the second level of the defense, ran out of two tackles, and scored on a 13-yard run off of the left side of the line to cut the lead to 16-14 with 1:44 to play in the third quarter of action.
The Pirates, however, weren’t done tearing into the will of Columbus Academy. On the ensuing kickoff, Jonathan Eaton’s special teams unit snuck up on the Vikings with a pooch kick that was perfectly executed by Jalen Miller, which gave Wheelersburg the football again at the Columbus Academy 46.
“Jalen really did an excellent job all night from a special teams standpoint,” Woodward said. “Special teams were just huge all night.”
But after only gaining two yards in three plays, it looked like the Pirates were going to have to work their magic again.
And that’s exactly what they did.
On fourth-and-eight from the Columbus Academy 44, Carmichael, on a gadget play, slightly rolled to his right, and, with no pressure coming, found Horsley coming through the back side of the defense wide open on the near side.
Horsley, however, wasn’t satisfied with just first down yardage, as the sophomore zigged and zagged his way past three Viking defenders en route to an electrifying 44-yard touchdown reception that sent the Wheelersburg faithful into a frenzy and gave the Pirates a 21-16 lead with 23 seconds left in the third quarter.
“That’s a dream play, really,” Woodward said. “It was really executed to perfection.”
With momentum on its side, Wheelersburg looked for, and delivered, the necessary shots that put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter of action.
After a 21-yard run from Pearson, Columbus Academy advanced to its own 41, but an overthrown pass was easily read and intercepted by Bryson Keeney. Reyes then showed his electrifying speed on the next play by vaulting 63 yards down the near sideline to the nine-yard line, which set up an eight-yard touchdown run from Carmichael that put Wheelersburg up by a 28-16 tally with 9:51 to play in the fourth quarter.
Reyes, who hadn’t played since Wheelersburg’s 62-20 victory over Waverly on Oct. 6, certainly looked 100 percent in a resilient effort by the multi-sport athlete. No. 13 proved to be lucky for the Pirates as Reyes ran for a team-high 157 yards on 13 carries.
“It’s outstanding,” Woodward said of Reyes’ resiliency. “Some guys would pack it in, shut down, and be selfish and upset that they missed all of those opportunities. Dominic’s not that kind of person, and I don’t believe that any of our players are like that. Each of our players work as hard as they can, and if their opportunity’s not there yet, they’ll continue to work to grow and get to that point where they can make plays.”
With the momentum fully on Wheelersburg’s side, the overpowering will of the Pirates began to show as Wheelersburg, who nearly recovered another pooch kick on the ensuing kickoff, recovered an errant snap on the next play to set up shop inside the Columbus Academy 35.
“You’ve got to be able to limit penalties, and make sure that you don’t turn the football over while also taking advantage of opportunities that are there,” Woodward said. “We did that in the second half, for sure.”
After that turnover, Carmichael then willed his way into the end zone for his fourth touchdown of the night by running through three Viking defenders for a 22-yard touchdown with 8:36 to play to close out a contest where the senior collected 106 yards of total offense, four touchdowns, and made a team-high eight tackles on the defensive side of the football. Makya Matthews picked off a pass on Columbus Academy’s next drive to seal the deal.
“The entire offensive line did an outstanding job in the second half,” Woodward said. “Luke May hadn’t been able to practice all week, but we got him in there late in the first half, and finished the game out for us with great play. Alex George, CJ Hall, and Caleb Browning were outstanding as usual, and Nic Parsley stepped in there and did a great job when he was utilized on offense. Then you have Avery Donini and Justin Salyers, our two tight ends, who were finishing blocks well downfield and creating holes along with the rest of those guys. Xander ran so hard, and the line was just creating the holes that led to the dominating play that we saw.”
With the victory, Wheelersburg will play Johnstown-Monroe, who ran for 444 yards in a 35-6 victory against West, next Friday at a to-be-determined location. But regardless of where the game is played, it is known that the preparation will match the mantra that has been the theme all season long, so that the theme, and the dream, can become the reality.
“Our theme this year is to reach higher,” Woodward said. “We expected to be here, so it’s now time to take the next step and get on to the next level. Johnstown-Monroe is a very well-coached team with a lot of good, hard-running athletes, and I know that we’re going to go back to work in order to be prepared for a disciplined, strong football team.”
Reach Kevin Colley (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT