CANTON — History.
The seven-letter word is so simple to say, but so hard to accomplish — because rewriting the books is a job that takes 365 days of hard work and patience in order to do so.
Yet, the Wheelersburg Pirates, after 27 consecutive seasons of toiling away at a goal that they had hoped for many years would come to fruition after taking home said goal initially in 1989, never were phased.
In knowing the work that it would take in order to not only get to, but ultimately obtain, the ultimate prize, Rob Woodward, behind an inspired group of players who never quit, stood tall.
Yes, the Wheelersburg Pirates stood tall. They did so by using a 35-6 spurt to overcome a 10-0 halftime deficit against Columbus Academy. They did so by overcoming a ferocious and unrelenting Middletown Madison pass rush — all while also overcoming a 10-0 deficit.
And in the biggest game of the 2017 campaign for Wheelersburg, the Pirates, again, showed that ability to come up in the clutch one final time when its championship hopes looked to be all but dashed.
After a three-yard touchdown run for Jake Rayford with just 1:27 to play in the Division V State Championship, the Pirates, after coming from behind initially on a clutch first-half drive from Trent Salyers to take a 7-6 advantage heading into halftime, Wheelersburg was faced with a do-or-die drive as Pemberville Eastwood — behind Rayford’s touchdown run and a two-point conversion pass — took a 14-7 advantage.
But ever the fighters, the Pirates reached higher one final time — and raised the Jolly Roger for good.
Even after fighting through an ankle injury and hobbling his way around the field in an effort to rally the troops, Trent Salyers completed three straight passes — including a huge third-and-eight pass for 17 yards to Bryson Keeney, a bullet down the sideline for 31 yards to Cole Lowery, and a 13-yard pass over the middle to the ever-dependable Tanner Holden — to set up the biggest throw of his young life, a 12-yard touchdown to Makya Matthews that tied the score at 14 with just 12 seconds remaining to send the thrilling affair into a well-deserved overtime session.
There, Wheelersburg did what it had done all season — and finished another hard-fought contest off.
With the Pirates facing a fourth-and-one situation at the Eastwood 11, Xander Carmichael used a well-timed gadget play — a jump pass — to find Tanner Holden for a 12-yard touchdown strike that gave ‘Burg the lead. The Pirates’ defensive unit then fittingly made the final big play that it needed to make by forcing a Rayford fumble as the sophomore standout fought for extra yardage, a ball that Lowery pounced on — to send the Wheelersburg sideline and its fans into a frenzy.
Game. Set. Match. The final result, you ask? Wheelersburg, 21-14 — the school’s second state championship in football ever, and its fourth in any sport in a five-and-a-half-year span.
And it’s all because the Pirates, as they have done all year long, chose to reach higher — a quality that Rob Woodward credits his players for doing from start to finish.
“Last year, we adopted the #ReachHigher theme, and in January, I always give our team a theme that we have for the year,” Woodward said. “I told some of our guys that, and a couple of our guys, senior captains, had told me that they didn’t really like it at first. It wasn’t until we got through the regular season, and were 10-0 for the second straight time, that it really started to sink in. What I wanted to happen, as a coach, was this: we figured out how to do the job and work really hard to get to (the regional finals, and to the state semifinals). Now how do we take that to the next level? We got that ladder in the locker room that has our opponents on it each week, and each time that we achieve the next rung on the ladder, we put a towel over it. That final rung was hanging up there, and our guys did the things that we needed to do in order to get that done tonight.”
From the outset, the contest proved to be a hard-hitting affair that would make all football players who have taken to the famed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium turf, and those who haven’t, proud. Other than a pair of 15-yard run from Salyers and Rayford, the first 18 minutes and 24 seconds came and went without a run over seven yards as the defensive ferocity from both sides proved to be second to none. Eastwood was held to just 3.2 yards per carry in the first half, while the high-powered Wheelersburg offensive passing attack was held to 58 yards during the same period.
“I know that all of the guys on both teams are going to be sore after (Friday’s state final),” Woodward said. “That was a physical, hard-fought football game right there. It was such a great football game by both sides.”
With 5:36 remaining in the first half, however, Eastwood began going on the march.
After a Rayford run was stuffed, Jake Pickerel found Ceyleon Damron for a 37-yard gain that — with the aid of a fumble that rolled harmlessly out of bounds — put the Eagles on the 19 yard line. Damron then scored three plays later to put Wheelersburg behind in the affair for the third time in the last four affairs during the sensational postseason run as the junior running back capped off a five-play 54-yard drive with a seven-yard touchdown run to put the Eagles in front, 6-0, with 3:36 to play in the first half.
“(Jaden) Rayford is one great running back,” Woodward said. “Their offensive line was powerful, and (Ceyleon Damron) and (Cooper Comes) were excellent runners, too. Rayford really put his foot into the ground and really thrust forward, trying to get the yards that they needed.”
But as if the touchdown ignited a fire under the Wheelersburg offense, the Pirates came right back down the field on a commanding eight-play, 67-yard drive led by their first-year starting quarterback.
Salyers, who completed 17 of his 29 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown on the evening, competed four critical passes during the drive alone — including a 29-yard pass to Keeney, who broke free of the defense as the Pirates vaulted into Eastwood territory. Then, after two critical feeds over the middle to Matthews for 15 tallies and Holden for 13 yards, along with a three-yard run by Xander Carmichael, Salyers called his own number as the 6-1 junior fought his way into the end zone with 42 seconds left in the first half to give Wheelersburg a 7-6 halftime advantage.
“Outstanding toughness,” Woodward said of Salyers. “We continued to stay the course, and he continued to give us the confidence that he could get the job done.”
In the third quarter of play, both units found the going difficult offensively as neither team could muster a long-lasting drive. Wheelersburg, in particular, got the job done on the defensively — by holding Eastwood to just 28 total yards in the third quarter of action behind the super six up front.
“Our guys just kept battling and battling,” Woodward said. “Nic Parsley, Evan Horsley, CJ Hall, Jeremy Cooper, Evan Dahm, and Xander Carmichael continued to make Eastwood earn their yards all game and put us in situations where our offense could get the ball back.”
But Rayford, the ever-talented back who had run for 2,107 yards and 34 touchdowns, kicked his game into high gear in the fourth quarter of play. After Eastwood got the ball back with 5:07 to play in the fourth quarter, Rayford took off for a 30-yard run on the fourth play of the drive that positioned the Eagles with a first-and-goal at the ten, and finished off the drive by bouncing off a pair of Wheelersburg tacklers en route to putting Eastwood back on top, 14-7, with 1:27 to play.
Salyers, however, wasn’t deterred. On a third-and-nine from the 26, the junior found Keeney again on the near sideline for the critical 18-yard gain to give Wheelersburg a first down at its own 44, then found Lowery streaking down the sideline for a massive 31-yard gain to the 25. Holden’s 13-yard reception over the middle then set up Matthews, who caught a wide-open pass at the seven and bulled his way into the end zone on the near side to tie the score with the mere 12 seconds remaining. Keeney, who caught five passes for a team-high 84 yards, set the entire drive up with the most critical catch of his high school football career.
“Bryson is the best blocking receiver that I have ever had, pound for pound,” Woodward said. “The state championship game was his time to shine catching the football.”
With the game in overtime, Wheelersburg bullied its way down to the Eastwood 11, where the Pirates faced a fourth-and-one. There, the Pirates were faced with a tough decision — leave it in the hands of Jalen Miller, or go for it and try to get six. Wheelersburg chose the latter option — and it paid off in an 11-yard jump pass from Carmichael to the 6-6 Holden, who brought the ball down and ran through an arm tackle to paydirt to take the 21-14 advantage.
“We have a good kicker (in Jalen Miller),” Woodward said. “We had the one timeout there in overtime, so we used it and talked over what we wanted to do. As soon as the guys came over, we ran through the things that we have, and went through the toolbox to try to pull out what we thought that we could do there. We talked about the formation and went right back to that play. Tanner has called for that play a couple of times the last two games, and we called it there.”
“Xander’s quarterback rating has been phenomenal in 2017,” Woodward added, laughing. “All of those plays that we have run during our playoff stretch are plays that we have gone to in times that we’ve needed them.”
With the game on the line, Rayford, too, bullied his way to the 11 on just one carry. His second, however, wouldn’t be as fruitful. As the Wheelersburg defense stood the 6-2, 190-pound junior up at the line of scrimmage, Rayford, in an effort to obtain positive yards, fumbled the football as three Pirates gobbled him up while the sophomore was crossing the 10. The ball rolled forward inside the five, where Lowery, for the second week in a row, made the game-clinching play by jumping on top of the football to seal the deal.
“These players have been coachable, and that’s what you’ve got to have in order to be able to put things together,” Woodward said. “Our assistants have worked extremely hard, and our players have been coachable. The 2017 Wheelersburg Pirates’ football team definitely had both of those qualities.”
With the championship in hand, the task of reaching higher has truly been completed. But as with anything in life, retaining that level of excellence will be just as much of a challenge, if not moreso.
However, with Friday evening’s performance, it is clear that the Wheelersburg Pirates are as well-equipped as any team to handle such a challenge.
“We lose 18 seniors that have been such an integral part of things, but at the same time, we’ve had to replace 16, 17, 18 guys each year,” Woodward said. “The job that these guys do with instilling the values of the program into the younger players on what they need to do to achieve success, for sure, and it’s something that I’m going to be looking forward to seeing as a coach in the future.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT