CHILLICOTHE – All season long, Wheelersburg has imposed its will on their opponents.
Friday night at Hernstein Field, that was no different. In a regional final game against Johnstown-Monroe, the Pirates flat out dominated on their way to an impressive 34-7 victory.
With the win, Wheelersburg will advance to the state semifinals next Friday to take on Madison Middletown.
“This is outstanding for our community and our players,” Pirates head coach Rob Woodward said. “Our senior class, what a job they’ve done this entire year. I can’t say enough about the work they’ve put in since January.”
The community came out in full force to support their Pirates in the playoffs.
“Our community was here filling up the seats,” Woodward said. “I think at six o’clock they had the whole sidelines full, and our kids feed off that energy. They sent us off down at the field and the energy was just electric, and our guys feed off that and I’m trying to tap into that as a coach.”
Wheelersburg’s defense flexed its muscle in the match, as it has all season. For the ninth time this year, the Pirates held their competition to seven or fewer points.
The Johnnies mustered just 152 rushing yards on 38 attempts after recording over 400 yards on the ground the week before.
Aside from a 27 and 61-yard run from Bryce Barasch, Johnstown-Monroe did virtually nothing in the run game.
Take away those two long plays and the Johnnies totaled just 64 yards on 36 carries.
Led by several defenders, the Wheelersburg D was locked in.
Nic Parsley led the charge with 10 total tackles. Alex George registered eight total tackles behind him. Three players were tied with seven stops: Jeremy Cooper, Evan Dahm and Xander Carmichael.
“It was a great win tonight,” Carmichael said. “We prepared very hard this week, it was an amazing experience this game right here.”
Against the run-heavy Johnnies, the Pirates had a lot of preparation to endure in practice in the days leading up to the contest.
“We just practiced really hard on that on our run defense,” Carmichael said. “We decided to try and stop the run obviously because they run the ball hard, so we just practiced run game all week and tried to stop that.”
It seemed as though Wheelersburg made a living in the backfield of the Johnnies, as the Pirates constantly poached what the offense tried to do. Chase Stidham also made his presence felt with a team high two sacks.
Wheelersburg deferred to the second half to start the game, so Johnstown-Monroe began the night with the football in hand and a chance to set the tone early.
The Johnnies tried to sneak a halfback pass from Barasch in on the second play from scrimmage, but Carmichael read the play like a book and picked it off.
In opponent’s territory, the Pirates cashed in quickly. Dominic Reyes darted towards the end zone from six yards out, and a Jalen Miller extra point made the score 7-0 Wheelersburg not even three minutes in.
Reyes carried the rock 12 times in the game for 92 yards, including a long run of 38. The Pirates manufactured 133 yards by way of the run.
Johnstown-Monroe wasn’t doing themselves any favors when they were whistled for a block in the back on the ensuing kickoff. Starting at their own 10, the Johnnies got some life on a 27 yard Barasch carry, but on 3rd and 10 near midfield their option call was stalled for no gain.
Wheelersburg was back on the field in their own territory at the 28-yard line. After two incomplete passes from Trent Salyers, the Pirates were faced with a 3rd down and 10.
Seeing no receivers open, Salyers picked up the first down yardage himself on a nice scramble in the open field.
Several passes to Cole Lowery had Wheelersburg at midfield, and a quick throw to the hands of Makya Matthews put the Pirates in the red zone at the 16.
Reyes took Wheelersburg to the 10 yard line, and on 2nd down and 4 Salyers found his playmaker Tanner Holden for a 10 yard reception.
On the way, Holden took a quick jab and pushed past the first defender in his path, then put another defender on spin cycle in a play that looked rather easy for him.
Holden has now scored 20 touchdowns this year, racking up 1427 yards on 96 catches. The highlight reel score put the Pirates up 14-0 with 4:10 to go in the first after the Miller point after.
It wouldn’t be the last time you heard from Holden on the night.
Both schools exchanged three and outs, and Johnstown-Monroe started their fourth drive at their own 21. It looked like the Johnnies had a jolt of energy when Barasch got his big 61-yard run, but they were unable to close.
When Johnstown-Monroe got a first down at the Wheelersburg 13, Woodward took a timeout. Out of the break, Avery Donini recovered a Johnnies fumble to steal the momentum out of the hands of the Johnnies quite literally.
Donini is now the only member of the Pirates defense to record a forced fumble, interception, and fumble recovery on the season.
Leading by two scores and seemingly in control, Wheelersburg went 84 yards in seven plays. Lowery had a 22-yard snag that put the Pirates near midfield, and Holden capped the drive with a 16-yard touchdown catch on a beautiful throw from Salyers.
This time, Johnstown-Monroe opted to play off Holden and try to hit him late and jar the ball free. Holden wasn’t letting that happen, and brushed off two defenders to secure the score.
Miller knocked home his third extra point, and Wheelersburg went up 21-0 with 7:38 in the second quarter still left.
“He’s such a weapon to utilize,” Woodward said on Holden. “We’ve got so many weapons, if you’re going to try and cover him we’ve got other things that we can go to.”
“Cole Lowery had an outstanding game today. Makya Matthews outstanding game, Dominic Reyes running the ball and Evan Horsley.”
Salyers, the signal caller, was also on point.
“Trent did a great job orchestrating our offense and the keys and reading things that he needed to do.”
Stats don’t lie, and Salyers has had a stellar 2017 campaign.
Through 13 games, Salyers has put up 3,172 yards through the air and scored 33 times with only 10 interceptions. In this game, Salyers completed 73 percent of his passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns.
After the Salyers scoring play to Holden, the Johnnies went three and out quickly after several run plays were stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
With the ball again, it didn’t look like the Pirates were destined for much of a drive. Salyers was sacked, and Wheelersburg was faced with a 3rd down and 20.
An underneath pass to Holden created just enough space for the junior to race the Johnnies, and 69 yards later the Pirates were in position to score once more.
Horsley found his way home in the end zone from a yard out, aided by a bulldozing block from Luke May who overpowered his opposition across the line.
The extra point sailed through, and Wheelersburg was now in front 28-0 with 2:56 before halftime.
Neither team had much offense left, and the Pirates were in a good spot up four scores at the break. However, their coach knew they needed to keep pounding.
“I told them early on at halftime we’re not celebrating anything right now, because you’ve got another half,” Woodward said.
Wheelersburg started the second half with the football, and was piecing together another solid drive. Back in Johnstown-Monroe territory, Salyers was looking for six but instead found Trent Jakeway of the Johnnies.
Johnstown-Monroe had a chance to make something, but went three and out again.
The Pirates would give the ball right back on a fumble, but once again the Johnnies were stopped in three plays.
Like a pack of rabid wolves, Wheelersburg was often attacking in groups. Pairs of Pirates would pile on ball carriers at a time it seemed. Their head coach agreed.
“The thing I thought we did so well tonight was our tackling,” Woodward said. “We had one, two, three hats to the ball continuously our guys were right there making plays that they needed to and putting our offense in a great position.”
After the change of hands, Wheelersburg worked methodically for 10 plays to march 94 yards for a touchdown that stretched the lead out of grasp.
Matthews caught a short pass and turned on the jets to outrun Johnstown-Monroe for the end zone. The extra point was blocked, but a 34-0 lead with 10:05 to play kicked the running clock in effect.
The Johnnies inserted Jason Walters into the action to play quarterback the rest of the way, and Walters was able to put some work in.
Johnstown-Monroe scored on an 18-yard touchdown from Walters to Jared Orders. There was only 2:51 to go before the conclusion of the contest, and the Johnnies got on the board with the kick afterwards to make the count 34-7.
As the clock bled out, the Pirates were moving on in the playoffs by prevailing over Johnstown-Monroe.
A tough week of work was finished with a sweet triumph to make it to the semifinals.
“Throughout the whole season, they’ve just worked, and worked, and worked,” Woodward said. “They’ve enhanced things throughout the playoffs. They’ve taken it to the next level.”
“They’re so coachable. They’re so good at being coachable, and I think it definitely showed tonight as they came out here and dominated on offense, defense, and special teams.”
The showing was spectacular, but it wasn’t something that seemed likely earlier in the week.
“We weren’t there on Monday,” Woodward said. “We weren’t there on Tuesday, even Wednesday we had some things. But Thursday we were ready to go, and our coaches put in the time to get these kids ready.”
“When I walked out of our feed the team [Thursday] night, they were the most ready I’ve ever seen a team going in to this ballgame. I just sensed it, I felt it. It was all the work that they put in.”
The job isn’t done yet for Wheelersburg, who wants to win it all. But they’ve still got two games to win if they want that state championship trophy.
“One game at a time, I’m not going to hope for anything,” Carmichael said. “I’m just going to work hard, and we’re going to get this win next game.”
The Pirates will play Madison Senior from Middletown on Friday at a location to be determined, presumably Chillicothe.
Wheelersburg: Dominic Reyes 6 yd run (XP good) 7-0
Wheelersburg: Tanner Holden 10 yd rec from Trent Salyers (XP good) 14-0
Wheelersburg: Tanner Holden 16 yd rec from Trent Salyers (XP good) 21-0
Wheelersburg: Evan Horsley 1 yd run (XP good) 28-0
Wheelersburg: Makya Matthews 12 yd rec from Trent Salyers (XP blocked) 34-0
Johnstown-Monroe: Jared Orders 18 yd rec from Jason Walters (XP good) 34-7
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer