Championship football teams are often times built on the line of scrimmage.
The offensive line does the dirty work, and defensively the front seven needs to be talented for a team to compete at a high level.
It’s easy to overlook those aforementioned players. Of course, they typically aren’t the ones scoring the highlight reel touchdowns. But what they are doing is setting the tone of the game, establishing themselves on the line, and ultimately encapsulating what the sport of football is all about.
Certainly, the Wheelersburg Pirates had a lot of spectacular skill position talent. Wide receiver Tanner Holden was the Division V Offensive Player of the Year. Quarterback Trent Salyers passed for 35 touchdowns. Running back Dominic Reyes scored eight rushing touchdowns.
Yet, the talent goes beyond that and extends up front, where Wheelersburg won all 15 games they played this season with a dominant offensive line and defensive front.
“I had a great role,” senior lineman CJ Hall said. “I was just blocking every play, but whenever you see that you have athletes like that and they make great plays off your block, that’s all I need.”
Hall says playing up front, especially on the offensive line, is no easy task.
“It’s a challenge,” Hall said. “A lineman can’t take off a play, because if you do everybody is going to see it in the stands. You’ve just go to put it to yourself to say this guy is not getting past me.”
Success up front is determined by the overall ability of the unit, too. While one or two linemen might stand out at times, it takes a total team effort on the line to be able to sustain said success.
“Playing in the trenches, you’ve got to be selfless,” Hall said. “It feels good when you’re sitting there taking on a double team or getting a block and your back is making great plays.”
If it wasn’t for the stout play up front, the state championship dreams might not have become a reality.
In the second-round playoff game against Columbus Academy, the Pirates trailed 13-0 at halftime. The typical offensive play calls that had worked all season long were sputtering, and Wheelersburg’s hopes of advancing to the regional final were in jeopardy.
That is, until they made some adjustments at halftime to rely more on the running game.
“We went in and just decided we wanted to run a heavy offense, run it right at them,” senior defensive lineman Nic Parsley said. “They really just didn’t know what to do.”
Wheelersburg would score four rushing touchdowns in the final two quarters on their way to a 35-16 victory, paving the way for what was to come in their historic playoff run.
“When we were in [the locker room], we were just telling [the coaches] that the backs have had us all season,” Hall said. “It’s time to put the backs on our back and we’re ready to go.”
“We really thought we could get some movement because they were standing up and just trying to make plays. They had an athletic front more so than a powerful one, so we really just started getting that ball moving.”
For the big guys up front and on both the offensive and defensive lines, that comeback win in the second round of the playoffs demonstrated their hard work and dedication throughout the season and their careers.
“It was nice, it was a great feeling,” senior defensive lineman Alex George said. “We were stomping on their throats right there, and then finally kind of end it with a couple more touchdowns to finally put them in a coffin. It was great.”
The win against Columbus Academy propelled the Pirates to a blowout in the next round over Johnstown-Monroe to make it to the state semifinals in a game against Madison.
Once again, Wheelersburg wound up behind late in the contest. The defense never held their heads, and kept fighting to prevent the Pirates from falling behind even more.
“I think we wanted to do our part more than anything else,” junior linebacker and offensive lineman Evan Dahm said. “We knew if it was a three-score game it was going to be difficult for our offense to come back.”
“I think we knew that we were going to get the job done, it was just everybody doing their part and everybody going after the ball when they could.”
Trailing 10-0 in the third quarter, Wheelersburg was in dire need of a big play.
They would get that play from Dahm, who intercepted a Madison pass on a drive that saw the Mohawks deep in Pirates territory.
“Coach Tilley had been telling me I was going to get a pick all game,” Dahm said. “They rolled out, and their quarterback was a great athlete but a lot of times he doesn’t check his receivers.”
“He’s ducking and trying to get that thing out as quick as possible, and I came underneath. I’m glad I caught it, because if I wouldn’t have it would have been really embarrassing.”
The play brought Wheelersburg fans back on their feet, and helped the Pirates make their late push once more.
“It was electric,” Dahm said. “When you look up there and every single person is on their feet, everybody is going crazy, it changes the course of the game.”
“After they caught me from behind, I was like “We’re winning this ball game, there’s no way that we can’t.” Even though we ended up punting it away, we changed the momentum. We were able to shift the momentum to our side, and I think we never lost it after that.”
Riding that momentum, the Pirates came back to win 15-10 with another late second half surge on the shoulders of their defense and offensive line.
Next up was the state championship game against Eastwood, another game that would test Wheelersburg up front.
“Their interior two were just stocky boys that you couldn’t move,” Hall said. “Their defensive ends I felt like were not as good as Madison’s, but they were faster and more agile than them but not as strong.”
On the other side of the ball, Dahm said the offensive line for the Eagles was as tough as they come.
“Their linemen were some of the best I’ve ever seen,” Dahm said. “Probably the best I’ve ever seen at getting out and blocking the linebackers.”
“They had good leverage, and you could not move them. With the combination of that and their backs that ran well and played hard, it was the toughest game I’ve ever played in.”
Of course, the Pirates didn’t anticipate the state championship would come easy.
“That’s what you expect at that stage,” Dahm said. “You expect to play a team that’s going to try and exploit your toughness and make you give 110 percent. It was tough, but we got it done.”
Wheelersburg came back to tie the game with just seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, and sent the contest into overtime where the Pirates would score first on offense to take a 21-14 lead.
Now, it all came down to the defense for Wheelersburg if they wanted the trophy.
“I was nervous, because it all comes down to you at that point,” Dahm said. “You can’t give it to anyone else, you can’t give it to the offense, you have got to get the job done.”
“It didn’t look like it was going to happen, but Avery [Donini] came up and made a great play, the perfect play that had to be made and we’re state champions.”
George came in to make first contact, and Donini forced a fumble that was recovered by Cole Lowery to seal the deal.
“I was playing defensive end,” George said. “Avery was at the pirate position, which is just like a monster linebacker/strong safety.”
“I came down and had the initial hit, and then Avery came in and just knocked the ball out. I rolled over and looked up, and Cole jumped on the ball. That’s when I started running down the field, looking up in the stands and saw everyone going crazy. It was breathtaking to realize that we did it.”
In a great all-around performance, the defense put a cap on the historic 2017 season for the Pirates to claim their treasure of a state championship trophy.
“We always had the motto that defense wins championships,” Parsley said. “We were always just making a killing on the field, and I think our defense is what got us there.”