To reach higher expectations, a team obviously has to have a good amount of talent in place.
And without a doubt, the Wheelersburg Pirates’ football program certainly has that in its arsenal in 2017.
However, the separation between great teams and championship-caliber units are the ones where everybody works hard and accepts their roles — no matter what each player is asked to do.
Over the first 13 games of the season, Rob Woodward’s Wheelersburg Pirates have shown off an intensity level that has been unmatched and unrivaled by their opponents en route to winning each and every contest that has been played by 19 points or more — including a 34-7 victory over Johnstown-Monroe last week en route to its second Division V Regional Championship in three seasons.
Now, Wheelersburg, who has set a passionate goal to reach higher all season long, will have a chance to do just that on Friday evening when the Pirates square off against the Middletown Madison Mohawks on Friday evening in an OHSAA Division V State Semifinal that will be held at Herrnstein Field on the campus of Chillicothe High School.
With 13 intense weeks of dedication and preparation behind them, it can be rendered difficult to continue playing at such a high level, especially considering the wear and tear that can take from a physical and mental standpoint.
However, Woodward’s Pirates aren’t your ordinary football team — as their 558 to 104 scoring margin suggests.
“Our team has matched the intense energy that they have brought to practice all year,” Woodward said. “It just keeps intensifying. I see a determination and a focus in our players in how they approach things every day. They’re ready to go.”
In order for the ship to reach its port in Canton, however, Wheelersburg must slow, for the second time in as many weeks, another predominant rushing attack. Madison, who accumulated all of its 388 total offensive yards on the ground in an impressive 42-7 blowout victory over West Jefferson, rode the back of junior fullback Cameron Svarda (5-9, 160), who accumulated 195 yards rushing and two touchdowns according to Tri-State Football.
Overall, Svarda, who has amassed 1,891 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns on the ground for the Mohawks this season, leads a strong backfield that also includes Mason Whiteman (5-11, 180), who obtained 81 yards rushing and a score offensively while adding a 97-yard pick-six, and Tyler Baumgartner (5-9, 170), who has collected 886 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns for Middletown Madison. The trio have been key figures in an historic playoff run that will rate as the school’s all-time best regardless of Friday’s result, especially considering that the Mohawks have defeated traditional powers in Anna (14-10) and Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (35-27) during it.
“The thing that I keep recognizing about Middletown Madison is that they have a determination and a focus that is evident on film,” Woodward said. “Their coaching staff is staying simple. They put their kids in the best situations to be successful based on the talent that they have, and that’s something that we, as a coaching staff, do ourselves. We respect the way that they attack the game and the things that they do. We’ve got to make sure that we come out and play with the common intensity that I know our players can play with, and utilize the key aspects of the game, which is to block, tackle, and take care of the football.”
But while Middletown Madison has a complete backfield, the Wheelersburg defense has a defense that is arguably as complete as anybody’s around. That point was evident on Friday evening, when the Pirates — who are allowing just eight points per contest and 169.5 yards per game (including just 75 rushing yards per contest) heading into Friday’s state semifinal affair — held a potent Johnstown-Monroe offense to just 152 yards rushing on 38 carries last Friday. And when you take two long carries of 61 and 27 yards from Bryce Barasch away, that total drops to an incredible 64 yards on 36 carries — which is only 1.8 yards per rushing attempt.
“Our defense has been the backbone of our team this year,” Woodward said. “It’s continued to step up when it’s been needed and called upon. They’ve risen to the challenge each and every week, and our front six do an outstanding job of taking care of the run and putting pressure on the quarterback. Our secondary, last week, put on one of the best tackling displays that I’ve seen throughout the whole entire year. I’ve always been impressed with our team’s ability to tackle, but right now, it’s the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here. I remember being blown away by the job that our guys did in the open field in the intrasquad scrimmage. Our tackling has just been outstanding, and that has been what has really allowed us to be able to step up at times when we need to force a field goal in the red zone or need to force situations in order to maintain good field position.”
As talented as Wheelersburg is on the defensive side of the football, however, much of the Pirates’ success on that end comes from the discipline that Wheelersburg has showcased through the year. That point, in turn, has largely come from the unselfishness that each of the members on the Pirates’ roster have displayed in 2017.
In all, an amazing 14 players have collected at least 30 tackles or more in 2017, with the nasty defense being led by Xander Carmichael (79 tackles, three interceptions), Nic Parsley (76 tackles, five sacks), and Evan Dahm (69 tackles, INT). A 15th hand, Chris Bailey has 22 tackles, seven quarterback hurries, and four sacks — as a specialized rush end on third downs. Chase Stidham, another specialized rush end, has five sacks — including a team-high two against Johnstown-Monroe — while Makya Matthews and Tanner Holden have combined for seven picks on their own to round out a complete defensive unit.
“It’s a very unselfish group all throughout the roster from each of our classes,” Woodward said. “As a coaching staff, we have really tried to perfect the ability to recognize the talents of our student-athletes, put them in the situations where they need to be in order to be successful, and have them coached up and prepared so that they know what to do in certain situations. Being able to specialize certain players on offense, defense, and special teams to take a certain responsibility or a role in regards to what they need to do in a certain situation has been so effective for us. As far as what we do, it’s great to have the depth that we have.”
Defensively, Middletown Madison has been solid throughout the season, as its 14.3 points allowed per contest shows. Defensive linemen Tanner Limon and Cole Pelgen are a big reason why, considering that the duo have combined for 23.5 sacks on their own in 2017 for a defense that has obtained 37 sacks, eight interceptions, and seven fumble recoveries over the course of the year.
“They have a front four that is very effective as far as stopping the run is concerned,” Woodward said. “The defensive ends do a great job of bringing pressure, and their interior linemen are very physical with their hands. Behind them, they have a set of linebackers who are very disciplined and will wait for something to spill to them. In coverage, they tend to play man, and just attempt to keep things in front of them and react. The philosophy is about taking care of the run, forcing teams to throw the football, react to that, and make adjustments when they’re needed. We’ve got to be able to be effective in the things that we want to do offensively. We get better and better with that each week, and we’re going to try to take another step forward this week.”
But much like its defensive counterparts, the Wheelersburg offense has shown equal unselfishness. That’s especially true on the offensive line, where a strong rotation that varies between eight to 10 different Pirates has allowed Wheelersburg to obtain an incredible 5,633 yards of total offense and 72 touchdowns so far in 2017. Trent Salyers has already set single-season records in passing yards (3,172) and passing touchdowns (33) behind said line, while Holden has set his own single-season school marks in receptions (75), yards (1,427) and touchdowns (20).
“The offensive production and the overall numbers speak for themselves in regards to what those guys do for us,” Woodward said. “Last week, our passing protection and our blocking up front was the best that we’ve put together all year. We’ve had some outstanding games in big stages where guys were ready to roll, and they have continued to play awesome in those moments. They’ve put together an outstanding performance in terms of pass protection and creating holes that were needed up front. Our tight ends (Avery Donini, Justin Salyers) were right in the mix with our front five guys, and they all really took it to the next level. That’s what we’re going to have to have against Madison in order to continue to reach higher throughout these playoffs.”
Those roles, however, are ones that Woodward’s players are happy to take on, because in the game of life, long after the helmets are hung up and the cleats are shelved into the very boxes from which they came, the roles that they play on this team will help carry over into the roles that each of the members of the program will play for the rest of their lives.
“We talk about how that transitions into life,” Woodward said. “Each of us have a role within our families, each of us have a role within our communities, and each of us have a role within our workplace that we have to make sure that we take pride in. We take pride in what needs done, and that’s really what has catapulted our team and our program over the years.”
For now, however, there’s a game to win, and a statement that the student-athletes in the football program want to make for the community that they hold close to their hearts.
“We’re excited to represent Southeastern Ohio,” Woodward said. “The Wheelersburg community will be out in full force. We’re really excited to be at the level that we’re at. We understand the focus that it’s going to take, and we’ll feed off of all of that energy that’s provided to us as we try to continue to win and advance to the next level.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7