CHILLICOTHE – Hernstein Field was rocking on Friday night.
As the Wheelersburg Pirates took on the Madison Mohawks for a state championship berth, both stands were full and there was nearly no standing room as spectators witnessed an epic battle.
“It gives you chills every time,” Wheelersburg junior quarterback Trent Salyers said. “Just look up in the stands, look around, standing room only. It doesn’t get much better than Friday night lights.”
The atmosphere was certainly one to behold, and a big stage was set between the two schools. Fans piled in hours before the game kicked off, and were rambunctious throughout.
“I appreciate the fans that came out,” Wheelersburg senior tight end/linebacker Xander Carmichael said. “It was amazing to see all the bleachers filled, [Madison] came and supported as well, and it was just an amazing atmosphere tonight.”
Despite all the energy from the crowd, the Pirates took a couple quarters to wake up. The Mohawks scored a touchdown right before the end of the half on a short run to take a 7-0 lead into the break after a Salyers interception.
Still, Wheelersburg and head coach Rob Woodward weren’t wagering. Woodward knew his defense was dominant, just as it has been all season.
Several times Madison was in Pirates territory in the first half, but came up with just seven points to show for it. The halftime speech from Woodward to his team was to keep at it.
“He said our defense is doing just fine,” Carmichael said. “We’re in bad position again just like Columbus Academy, but other than that defense was playing our game and offense finally got the rhythm.”
Against Columbus Academy, Wheelersburg trailed 13-0 at the break before rallying to a 35-16 victory. A big part of that was reverting to more of a run-oriented attack, which the Pirates utilized in the second half against the Mohawks as well.
“We came out slow, I had two interceptions,” Salyers said. “I had to come in at halftime and get my mind right, and we started to run the ball a little more and that was pretty successful.”
Things didn’t change right away for Wheelersburg, however.
Madison was able to add a field goal to take a 10-0 lead in the third quarter. The Pirates would answer with a Jalen Miller field goal in the same frame, but the Mohawks defense was standing tall late into the third period.
Trailing 10-3, the Pirates caught a big break when Madison bobbled a punt and was stopped short of a first down. Wheelersburg would take over at the Mohawks’ 21-yard line, and cash in.
Trent Salyers found receiver Justin Salyers on a 3rd down and 5 from 17 yards out on a beautiful play action pass to pull the Pirates closer.
“We hit them with the pass, I think it was Justin Salyers’ first reception all year,” Trent Salyers said. “It was a clutch touchdown.”
Trent wasn’t so sure his throw to Justin was going to wind up going for a score, though.
“I saw him cutting across the field and I was about to take a hit, so I threw it up hoping for the best,” Trent Salyers said. “When I got back up, he was standing in the end zone. It was unbelievable.”
However, the extra point was missed by Miller and Wheelersburg was still behind 10-9 with around 10 minutes to play.
Yet, the Pirates defense was jacked up and forced a three-and-out to give Wheelersburg’s offense the ball back.
From there, Salyers found his favorite target Tanner Holden on a gorgeous 35-yard pass to put the Pirates inside the five-yard line.
Several plays later, Carmichael banged out the go-ahead touchdown from the wildcat formation from three yards out to put Wheelersburg ahead for good, 15-10.
“I just saw a big ol’ cutback hole and I just jumped,” Carmichael said. “I leaped up in the air and landed in. Oh my, that’s the best feeling ever.”
The two-point conversion try was stopped, but the Pirates had just enough juice to stay the course and claim their treasure of a state championship appearance.
Holden and Cole Lowery recorded interceptions in the final minutes to seal the deal, and Wheelersburg went on to win.
“We’re used to adversity,” Carmichael said. “We just overcame it, and now we’re going to the ‘ship baby.”
Carmichael cites that game against Columbus Academy as one that helped the Pirates play their best and get the win over Madison.
“We came back against Columbus Academy just like this one, and [Madison] put up a great fight,” Carmichael said. “I’m going to give it to them, that’s a great team right there.”
Salyers was psyched about earning a spot in the state title game.
“I can’t even explain it man,” Salyers said. “No words can describe this feeling.”
“We’ve worked so hard year in and year out on one goal … It feels great to be this far, but we’ve got to get the job done one more week.”
Although none of the current members of the team were alive the last time Wheelersburg played for a state title, they sure know their history.
“28 years,” Carmichael said. “It’s been 28 years.”
“We’ve been waiting for this, and this is the team to do it. I’m more excited that it’s with these guys, my brothers. I’m just very blessed for this team to be honest.”
Thought they’ve come this far, Salyers says there’s still some work to be done.
“A lot of preparation, that’s what got me this far,” Salyers said. “Prepare, work hard, lift, go hard every day. Can’t cheat the process, you’ve got to put all the work in to get results.”
If the Pirates can put in that work, they could be claiming another state championship. Wheelersburg (14-0) will play Pemberville Eastwood (14-0) at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton this Friday at 3 pm.
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer