CHILLICOTHE — In the game of life, the strongest of ships will find a way to withstand the punishment that adversity will bring.
On Friday evening, the ship that is the Wheelersburg Pirates’ football program had to overcome adversity once again — adversity that could’ve broken any great team — during its Division V State Semifinal matchup against Middletown Madison at Herrnstein Field in Chillicothe.
A backbreaking touchdown with just four-tenths of a second left in the first half — coming on a one-yard quarterback sneak by Mason Whiteman after the Mohawks barely got the snap off in time — gave Middletown Madison a 7-0 lead to end the first half. Then, Wheelersburg turnovers on consecutive drives — an interception and a fumble — allowed the Mohawks to hold a 10-0 advantage well into the third quarter of action as both units struggled to get much going offensively.
However, the Pirates weren’t going to let their ship sink in the face of adversity.
Despite facing its second double-digit deficit in the second half of play in a three-week span, Wheelersburg rallied back by second-to-none type defensive effort — even for the 2017 unit’s normal standards — by holding Middletown Madison to just 29 second-half yards and a 3-for-16 rate on third and fourth-down conversions while forcing four turnovers.
That gritty and unrelenting defensive effort, which opened up the field just enough for the Pirates to obtain a 17-yard touchdown pass from Trent Salyers to Justin Salyers on a third-and-five and a 35-yard pass from Salyers to Tanner Holden that set up Xander Carmichael’s game-winning one-yard run, allowed the Pirates to officially book a port in Canton as Wheelersburg, with a heartstopping 15-10 victory over the Cinderella story of Division V in Middletown Madison, advanced to the Division V State Championship Game that will be played next Friday with a historic win that puts the school in position to accomplish something that it hasn’t done since 1989.
For Rob Woodward, the victory all came down to the mental toughness that his players showed time after time in a game that proved to be an outstanding display of what sports, in general, are about.
“This team …. wow,” Woodward said. “(Getting to this stage) is something that we’ve worked toward. We got behind and had to deal with adversity, but the leadership of our players, especially our seniors, and of our entire team, is what allows this team to stay strong and keep getting after it. There had to be some things that had to happen for us in order to get some field position, because we weren’t generating what we needed to there, but we were there, and we had the opportunity. They say that luck is when preparation meets an opportunity, and when luck fell our way, we were prepared to capitalize on our opportunities.”
From the outset, the Wheelersburg defense had to show its strength as it only took one play for Middletown Madison to vault into Pirate territory after a 16-yard run from Tyler Baumgartner and a two-yard spurt from Whiteman allowed the Mohawks to put themselves inside the 40 yard line. But with a capacity crowd on hand, Middletown Madison found it difficult to even get plays off due to the incredible atmosphere present in Chillicothe as three consecutive false start penalties forced the Mohawks to punt the football away.
With its high-powered offense at the controls, the Wheelersburg offense looked to establish the attack that has been so prolific throughout the first 13 weeks of the season — and did an excellent job with getting the ball rolling initially as a Salyers pass to Cole Lowery netted the Pirates a first down while an eight-yard connection from Salyers to Holden gave Wheelersburg an excellent situation with a second-and-two at its own 35. However, another first-down connection from Salyers to Lowery was negated by an offensive pass interference call, and a sack on a third-and-six — the first of two in the quarter for Middletown Madison — also forced Wheelersburg to punt the football away.
There, the Wheelersburg defense, again, had to come up large as Middletown Madison — who started the ensuing drive from its own 39 yard line — immediately wasted no time getting inside the 30-yard line on two hard-nosed runs by star fullback Cameron Svarda. But after turning back a third Svarda and sacking Whiteman in the backfield on a pass play on a third-and-long, the Pirates forced the Mohawks to punt once more in what proved to be another battle won by the defense.
“Our guys stayed strong and stayed after it,” Woodward said. “They understand that by continuing to work hard, good things are going to happen. That’s something that we’ve talked about all year long. It takes believing in each other and working hard. Our leadership speaker this morning at our leadership breakfast, Brent Eaton, talked about the truth and all of the things that go along with leadership, and one of the things that we talked about early on is that football is a game that reveals the truth. I believe that it did just that tonight.”
However, Wheelersburg, behind a stifling defensive effort by Middletown Madison, wasn’t having much success in its own right as far as moving the football was concerned.
After completing five consecutive passes at one point thanks to excellent offensive line play and a gritty mental attitude, the Mohawks dialed up the heat behind the pressure of star defensive linemen Cole Pelgen, Tanner Limon, Max Evans, and Riley Patrick, and didn’t even give Salyers enough time to get the football away as the junior quarterback, after completing five of his first six passes, only completed one pass over his next seven attempts.
Still, the tenacity of the Pirates’ defensive unit, behind the play of Xander Carmichael (12 tackles), Nic Parsley (11 tackles, sack), and Evan Dahm and CJ Hall, who finished with nine tackles apiece, allowed Wheelersburg to keep the Middletown Madison offense from even sniffing the red zone.
But at the end of the second half, that all changed in a matter of two minutes and 45 seconds. An interception on a tipped pass down the middle set the Mohawks up with its best field position all evening at the Wheelersburg 26, and hard-nosed running by Baumgartner, Pelgen, and Svarda allowed Whiteman to score on the aforementioned one-yard quarterback sneak with just four-tenths of a second to go in the first half.
Wheelersburg, however, never seemed rattled. And with the Pirates facing its second halftime deficit in a three-week span, Woodward’s group showed the necessary wherewithal to pull through once again by not panicking at the situation.
“That’s where the maturity of our players and the maturity of our coaching staff kicks in,” Woodward said. “That’s just grown over the years as far as the things that have been instilled from an offensive, defensive, and a special teams standpoint when a play needs to be made in all three phases.”
That resolve, however, was put to the test early — not once, but twice. After a pass by Salyers was tipped, intercepted, and returned to the six-yard line by Madison, the Wheelersburg defense, after a three-yard spurt from Pelgen, responded by stopping a pair of runs from Baumgartner and Whiteman in their tracks, which forced the Mohawks to settle for a short field goal in another battle that was won by the Pirates. Then, after a fumble was recovered by Madison on a second down running play, Dahm camped out all the way on a Whiteman pass and stepped in front to make a huge interception in between the hashes to keep the contest well within Wheelersburg’s grasp.
“That’s two times in the last three weeks that our defense has done that,” Woodward said, referring to the critical goal-to-go stand. “They didn’t back down one bit. Then Evan, being the leader that he is, makes an upperclassman play by picking off a pass that helped us shift field position. They say that defense wins championships, and it’s holding true for this Wheelersburg football team here throughout the playoffs.”
On the ensuing drive, the Pirates, behind the play of Salyers and Dominic Reyes, executed in a solid manner by picking up a pair of first downs on a one-yard third-down run by the former and an eight-yard scamper down the near sideline from the latter that helped shift field position even more. That proved to be critical right away as Middletown Madison, on the first play after an excellent punt from Carmichael, fumbled the football away to give Wheelersburg an excellent chance to strike at the Madison 13 yard line. Ultimately, three hard-nosed runs by Carmichael and Evan Horsley set up Jalen Miller for a critical 22-yard field goal that immediately cut the Mohawk lead to seven, 10-3, with 1:50 to play in the third quarter of action.
Then, the Pirates really dialed up the heat.
After forcing a three-and-out, Wheelersburg was already going to be in an excellent situation to change the game with a strong drive. But with the defense doing its part to give the offense a chance to win the game, the special teams unit felt left out. So when Whiteman bobbled the ensuing punt attempt, Jonathan Eaton’s unit wasted no time jumping all over the junior at the Wheelersburg 21 in stopping the athlete short of the first down while giving the offense excellent field position.
And against a team like Wheelersburg’s, that, more often than not, proves to be deadly.
After two physical, hard-nosed runs by Carmichael, Wheelersburg took a shot downfield on third-and-five as Trent Salyers lofted a pass high in the air. The pass, a well-placed ball with a pretty touch, dropped softly into the grasp of Justin Salyers as the juniors connected on the over the top pass to put the Pirates within one, 10-9, on the 17-yard pitch and catch with 10:08 remaining in the contest — an excellent event especially considering the circumstances and the unselfishness that the latter showed en route to fighting for his own spot in the starting lineup.
“Justin was a starter for us last season,” Woodward said. “At the start of this season, he just wasn’t quite at the level that he needed to be, and we had some guys who stepped up to start in his place. Justin, however, continued to fight all year, and fought to get himself back into a working rotation on the defensive side of the football. Then, as the season continued, and we got into the later weeks of the regular season, he’s giving a full-out effort and he’s clawing to get his spot back on offense. He’s so smart and gets himself in there, and lo and behold, there he is, catching a critical touchdown that puts us within one point in a state semifinal game.”
Even though the extra point was, indeed, missed, the momentum that Wheelersburg had garnered more than overrode anything that Madison, or the contest, in general, could throw at the Pirates. After another three-and-out allowed Wheelersburg to regain possession at midfield, the prolific passing tandem of Salyers and Holden connected on an unbelievable 35-yard connection where Holden simply willed his way past two Madison defenders en route to catching a pass that set up the Pirates with a first-and-goal from the Madison 3. From there, it only took Carmichael two plays — the latter being a one-yard dive off of right tackle from the wildcat — to give Wheelersburg a lead that it wouldn’t relinquish.
“We had some plays that were just missed early on,” Woodward said. “But we continued to stay after it. We recognized that as coaches and talked about some of those things. Hat’s off to the plays that the players made. Their defensive line was outstanding, and that was what we expected. We had to make some adjustments with that, but our kids just continued to battle. Those were two great throws by Trent.”
With over seven minutes still to play in the contest, Madison had plenty of time for an answer. But with the momentum completely on its side, Wheelersburg made sure that it stayed that way by holding the Mohawks to just 11 yards on Madison’s final three drives, with much of that yardage coming on a desperation run by Svarda on the next-to-last play of the contest. A pick by Lowery with less than 15 seconds remaining ultimately sealed the deal as the jugs shook in jubilation of the long-awaited moment.
”We’ve been knocking on the door time after time after time,” Woodward said. “There’s so many people to thank, and so many people that I can’t say enough about. I’m coming off of the field and I’m seeing faces of the players that played for us in 2008, which is the first year that I was the head coach here. Since that time, I’ve thought about all of those teams that have helped to set things up, especially over the last five years where we have made regional championship runs. All of those teams have helped to lay the groundwork to get us to where we need to be this year. I hope that they understand the part that they had in laying the groundwork for the things that we’re doing with this Wheelersburg football program in 2017.”
With the victory, Wheelersburg will get to travel to a place that no Pirate team has ever been before — the world-renown Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium — to take on Pemberville Eastwood in the Division V State Championship Game, which will be played on Friday, Dec. 1 at 3 p.m. It is the first time since 1989 that Wheelersburg has been to a state title affair from a football standpoint, with the 1989 appearance coming as a member of the Division III realm. There, the Pirates defeated Warren John F. Kennedy, 14-7, to set the tradition that these Pirates have followed, and are trying to build upon.
“It’s a 100-yard field, it has two hashes, and it’s got the numbers,” Woodward said. “It’s a surface that we love to be on. It just happens to be in Canton, which is the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s a dream that so many high school teams, coaches, and high school players have, and the Wheelersburg Pirates’ football program is going to get a chance to go out on that field and compete for a state title. We’re going to work hard this week, have ourselves prepared, and ready to represent Pirate football at that stadium.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT