Having prior experience is always crucial in anything in life, regardless of what the obstacle is.
Going into the OHSAA Division V State Championship game, it was well-known that the Pemberville Eastwood Eagles — the No. 1-ranked team in the Division V ranks across to the AP Poll at the end of the year — were going to be tough.
However, the Wheelersburg Pirates had a crucial chip on their shoulder that certainly helped on its way to proving that they were, indeed, the best Division V unit in all of Ohio.
As the only person to officially participate in both of the state title games across the Scioto County landscape during this millennium, 2003 West graduate Bryson Williams has experiences that the rest of us could only dream of having — both as a player and as a coach.
But after falling to Kenton and its prolific offensive attack in the 2002 Division IV State Championship affair, Williams got to experience the right side of the coin 15 years later as a coach when the Pirates pulled out the 21-14 overtime thriller that will be regarded as one of the best state championship games to ever be played, regardless of class, back on Dec. 1 in Canton.
“It’s a great feeling, especially winning it,” Williams, the wide receivers and defensive backs coach for the Pirates, said. “It’s a very close second to being a player and really being a part of it as far as your hard work and efforts are concerned. Bringing a championship back to Scioto County was very special.”
However, it’s clear that bringing a state title back to the county lines has been a goal of Williams’ for a long time.
In 2002, Williams was a part of a team that greatly contrasted Wheelersburg’s current offensive scheme, as West primarily ran the wishbone while the Pirates have worked from the shotgun almost exclusively for the past several seasons. However, the heart, the fight, and the overall mentality the the Senators had in 2002 proved to be almost identical to Wheelersburg’s 2017 squad.
“We were a senior-laden team,” Williams said. “Justin Cantrell, Bryan McCormick, and myself all started as freshmen, and there were other seniors from my class, including Zach Evans and Jeremiah Lenz, who contributed on the varsity roster and got playing time as freshmen. We were a class that was always pretty good coming up, and we had a lot of goals and wanted to accomplish some things that West had never done.”
And Williams, who played quarterback and defensive back, was right at the center of it all. After leading West to an 8-2 record and a second consecutive playoff berth — the first back-to-back playoff berths in school history — Williams, who also handled the kicking and punting duties for the Senators, led West to not only its first-ever playoff win in the history of the school (34-6 win over New Lexington), but three straight wins after that in thrilling affairs against Coshocton (27-21), Portsmouth (34-18), and Youngstown Urusline (13-7). The former pair of victories avenged 34-20 and 27-18 regular season losses while the latter win was a takedown of one of the state’s more well-respected programs.
“Going into that playoff run, we wanted to do something that West had never done before,” Williams said. “The atmosphere was new to all of us, which was a good thing. We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t understand the pressure that was on us, so we played loose as a result. We didn’t hold anything back. It was, ‘Hey, we’ve never been here before, so let’s give them everything that we’ve got.’ There was no pressure there. We had already exceeded expectations, so it was just about going out on the field, doing our best, and running with that.”
West’s reward for its hard work and fight, unfortunately, was facing a simply possessed Kenton unit that still holds records to this day thanks to the production of former Wake Forest and Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk. Mauk, who finished with an astronomical 6,540 yards passing in 2002, and 17,364 yards passing for his career, would end up being the leading force behind a seismic shift in how teams conducted their offensive schemes.
“Ben’s one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the state,” Williams said. “His national passing records were no joke. He was the real deal.”
And while Mauk certainly proved his talents in the state title game — obtaining 433 total yards of offense and all seven touchdowns on his own — West, behind Williams, made things interesting. A pick by Evans in the first half allowed Williams to score from a yard out later in the same sequence as the Senators cut an early Kenton lead to 13-7 in the second quarter of play. However, Williams’ second score of the game — an 11-yard run — was all that the Senators could muster offensively as the Wildcats proved to be too strong. Final score: 45-13, Kenton.
Still, the experience proved to be a fruitful one for the signal-caller and do-it-all athlete.
“Getting to the state title game against Kenton, who had won it the year before (15-0 in 2001) was really neat,” Williams said. “They introduced the State of Ohio to a five-wide offense. That was something that a lot of teams hadn’t seen, especially in Scioto County.”
Little did he know that within a decade, he’d be working with a similar offense.
In 2011, Williams was brought into the fold by Wheelersburg head coach Rob Woodward to assist with the freshman. A quick study, it took no time for the West graduate to work his way up to the varsity level as Williams obtained a spot on the main staff by the next year. Since then, it’s been full speed ahead with the newfound opportunity — one that he credits Woodward, among others, for grooming him for.
“My Dad (Dave) really taught me the game in all of the sports that I played,” Williams said. “He taught me to be a hard worker, and the work that he put in with me during the summer months was great. Then, you’ve got Mike Bricker. He’s just a motivator. Kids ran through a wall for him, and he would have you ready to play. At Wheelersburg, Rob Woodward is a guy who just does things the right way. He doesn’t cut any corners. He’s a fine guy, and hard work’s in his blood. Jonathan Eaton has also been a big role model for me. He’s really taught me a lot about the defensive secondary.
After helping put together a prolific Wheelersburg offense in aiding the development of former wide receiver Dylan Miller, Williams proceeded to do the same with guys like Tanner Bivens, and this season, the star quartet of Tanner Holden, Bryson Keeney, Cole Lowery, and Makya Matthews, who all produced on both ends of the field. Need proof? 2,981 receiving yards, 28 receiving touchdowns, and 11 interceptions between them certainly does justice to the work Williams has done with the group.
However, Williams credits the unselfishness of not only his receiving core, but the entire team, for setting an appropriate tone.
“Very unselfish,” Williams said. “We had guys that were giving up carries, whatever it took, to benefit the team and produce wins. The 2017 Wheelersburg Pirates did the same thing this year. No one ever cried or complained about a lack of touches, and that was the same thing with our team. No one cared who touched the ball. It was all about the final score at the end of the game.”
And the unselfish attitude, along with the sheer enjoyment of coming to the practice field, reminded Williams of his old playing days.
“That was like us,” Williams said. “We enjoyed each other and we enjoyed being out there on the field. We busted it every day. That’s one thing that I noticed out of this team. We’re at Ohio Wesleyan University, and it’s 90 degrees in July, but there was no moaning and groaning going out to the practice field. Everybody enjoyed competing.”
During the run to the school’s state state championship, Williams and the entire Pirate unit faced adversity after finding themselves trailing in the second half against Columbus Academy, Madison Middletown, and Eastwood. They won all three — behind a special mentality that Williams says is simply part of the fabric in a great town that has never accepted anything less than excellence.
“That’s just instilled in Wheelersburg kids,” Williams said. “It’s a never-say-die attitude. There’s never a time that they’re down and out, and I believe that comes from not only the coaching staff, but the parents in this community. There’s never a time where they are defeated.”
However, it certainly helps to have a coach that has been there before.
“They always asked, ‘What’s it like to play in a state title game?’ ‘How’d your game go?’ Of course, we didn’t have the best outcome, but they asked questions about what it was like, and that’s always great,” Williams said. “I just told them that from my experiences, the speed of the game, especially when you’re that deep in the playoffs, picks up. That’s something people don’t realize from the sidelines or the stands, but everything’s going to speed up, and windows are going to open and close a whole lot faster than they did Week 1, Week 2, or Week 3.”