WAVERLY — It’s a matchup of conference runner-ups, but it’s also a playoff affair of two of Southeastern Ohio’s consistently top programs.
That’s because the 9-1 Gallia Academy Blue Devils travel to face the 8-2 Waverly Tigers, as both squads are in need of a playoff pick-me-up — after a few years of not having much serious success to speak of.
Kickoff for the Division IV Region 15 quarterfinal is set for Saturday night at 7 p.m., inside Waverly’s nicely-renovated Raidiger Field.
Gallia Academy is making its 12th all-time Ohio High School Athletic Association state playoff appearance, while Waverly is making its eighth.
Both clubs qualified last year as the Tigers are actually competing in their school-record fourth consecutive postseason, but first for Region 15 after three straight seasons of one-and-out in the Cincinnati-centric Region 16.
For the eight-man Waverly senior class, and even its underclassmen, it’s time to take the next step as a program — and win a playoff game.
The third-seeded Tigers are 3-7 all-time in the playoffs — but haven’t won since back-to-back regional quarterfinal victories in 2006 and 2007, when Trevor Walls was the talented and highly-touted Waverly quarterback.
“These guys (seniors) have been to one every year, which is cool, but we haven’t tasted that victory yet,” said Waverly coach Chris Crabtree. “Going three times now four times in a row (to the playoffs) is the first time that’s been done here, so we have another opportunity to win one. We’re definitely in a better region (Region 15) for us, given our school-size perspective and our makeup, it just fits us a little bit better. In 2016, we had a home playoff game and it was super exciting with a great atmosphere, and it should be that way again on Saturday night. We just have to get over the hump, and this would be a great time to do that.”
The Blue Devils’ playoff mark is 6-11, but last season was the first since 2012 that Gallia Academy was even in the postseason — after a few years of falling on uncharacteristic hard times.
Gallia Academy is coming off a second straight 9-1 campaign under third-year head coach Alex Penrod — losing only against Ohio Valley Conference champion Ironton.
“It is a great feeling for our seniors, our team, our program and our community. To know where this program and these seniors were just a short time ago, but through their determination to want to be successful, they have bought into what the coaches lay out to them daily, week in and week out, and in the offseason,” said Penrod. “It is great for them to reap the benefits of hard work and commitment.”
Gallia Academy was in the running for a Region 15 home tilt, but the blowout loss against Ironton dropped the sixth-seeded Blue Devils out of the top four for good.
Penrod said the past two weeks have been about recovering physically, but more importantly emotionally.
“It was one of those ‘shell-shock’ moments. Our team truly believed they were going to beat Ironton. Unfortunately, things that could go wrong did go wrong, and we were not able to overcome the mental aspect of the adversity of situations,” said the coach. “But through every defeat, you can find strength if you are willing to believe positive thoughts and willing to get back to work. We have had a few minor bumps and bruises the last couple of weeks, but we hope to be back at full strength as we enter the playoffs.”
If Gallia Academy is at full strength for Saturday night, then that will include junior James Armstrong returning to the lineup after missing most of the seventh game of the season — and all three of the Blue’s final regular-season bouts, including Ironton.
The six-foot, 190-pound Armstrong had rushed for 1,034 yards on 134 carries prior to his injury, and is the most significant piece of the Blue Devils’ offensive attack.
It was believed by multiple sources that he would miss those last three regular-season games, but Crabtree is approaching as if Armstrong will return this week.
“Looking at them is almost like looking in the mirror in how we run our offense. They have similar formation sets, they are very athletic, they are very big up front. I know he has missed the last three games, but I am going to assume that the Armstrong kid is going to play on Saturday. But (running back Michael) Beasy has carried the load and has done a good job of running the football for them,” said Crabtree. “They are definitely well-coached, they want to run the football, they can throw the football when they need to, and their formations make it difficult for you to adjust to.”
With Armstrong’s, Beasy’s and Donevyn Woodson’s speed, Crabtree said a key is “being able to get off blocks and being able to tackle”.
“We’re going to have to stop the run. We want to make them throw the ball to beat us,” he said.
Meanwhile, Waverly has its own injury concerns — with junior quarterback Haydn’ Shanks continually competing on a torn ACL he suffered in the preseason.
Shanks still has thrown for 1,652 yards and 16 touchdowns on 115-of-185 passing, with Will Futhey leading the Tigers’ receiving corps — with 43 receptions for 872 yards and 11 TD.
But the Waverly offense, of course, centers around the senior standout running back Payton Shoemaker — who went over the 2,000-yard single-season rushing mark in the Tigers’ 27-14 triumph at Oak Hill.
The fast-paced Tigers try — and often succeed — at operating a hurry-it-up no-huddle offense, in which Shoemaker is the primary focus.
Shoemaker has 258 of the Tigers’ 328 carries this season, going off for an amazing average of 204 yards per game and eight yards per each individual carry.
He has amassed 28 touchdowns and 2,039 yards.
“We definitely have some athletes and we can stretch the field vertically or horizontally,” said Crabtree. “We can take the top off of it down deep, and obviously with Payton (Shoemaker), if you give him a little bit of crease, he can make things happen.”
Penrod explained that the Tigers’ tempo actually allows the Blue Devil defense to adjust easier.
“For a lot of teams, the up-tempo can give you fits because it is not something you see every game. For us, it gives us more of an advantage because our offense wants to play fast and up-tempo, so we are more geared to adjusting to their style of play,” he said. “We are not as fast as they are, and that is still hard to simulate. With the amount of weapons they have inside the box, they have the same ability outside of the box to beat you too. It all comes down to individually doing ‘your job’. For Waverly, the less time they have the football, that is what usually favors them. They are more worried about the number of snaps they can get more than time of possession. We know they want to push the tempo, and we have to be ready to adjust to the speed of the game and the formations they are going to give us.”
Hence, this could quickly turn into an offensive shootout, which will definitely keep the fans interested — on an expected cold night in Waverly.
Given Gallipolis is an estimated hour travel distance to Waverly along U.S. Route 35 to State Route 32, the Blue Devils do bring a following — and an even overflow crowd is likely on Saturday night.
It is the only Region 15 bout featuring a pair of Southeast District squads, and should attract all of Pike and Gallia counties.
“We have both been in big games with large crowds. Our Ironton game had a lot of buildup, but I think playing on a Saturday is more of a sticking point because of the ‘longer’ week, but also getting you out of the routine of the normal week during the year of playing on Fridays. It will be a great environment for both teams and schools, but also for Southeast Ohio,” said Penrod. “We hope both areas can pack the stadium, and give what both of our teams deserve, which is a positive support system from all involved.”
Of course, a playoff pick-me-up and advancement to the regional semifinals is the ultimate goal.
“With two teams being close enough for familiarity, it should be a packed house and great atmosphere,” said Crabtree. “We are excited for our kids, our community and our school system, and we hopefully we can get this one.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved