WHEELERSBURG — We know undefeated Ridgewood is indeed good.
But, in a universe and time when all you need is one more point than your opponent, is Wheelersburg better?
That question is going to be answered for sure on Saturday night, as the 8-3 Pirates — already 4-0 all-time against Ridgewood —play the 11-0 Generals in a Division V Region 19 semifinal, set for 7 p.m. inside upgraded Fulton Field in Lancaster.
Wheelersburg will be playing in its seventh consecutive regional semifinal — all of which have been victories.
But perhaps the Pirates reaching this season’s semifinal has been their most challenging, as Wheelersburg was 0-2 and 2-3 before sweeping through the Southern Ohio Conference Division II slate — en route to its current six-game winning streak.
The Pirates have actually won eight of their last nine games, with their three losses coming to teams with a combined stellar record of 31-2 — all three of which are playing in regional semifinals of their own.
Two of Wheelersburg’s wins were over Minford — a 21-20 overtime triumph to start their winning streak, and again in last week’s regional quarterfinals by a count of 28-23.
Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward said his Pirates — against Minford just as they have all season — “just continue to show resiliency of facing adversity and learning from it and adjusting to it”.
“Our kids are extremely coachable. Our senior class has worked through so much and been involved in so many big games they understand how to make adjustments and improve,” he said, in an interview on Tuesday. “A lot of people wrote us off after week two of this year. Our kids recognized that, and it left a bad taste in our mouths in terms of how they work to compete. But they have gone out and proven that they are the top team in the SOC II, and now we’re working to prove that we’re a team to contend here in Division V. It’s a huge accomplishment to make the playoffs and win a playoff game. Each round we get here, we’re going to go out and have fun playing the game and keep attacking like we do each and every week. Our kids learn and get better.”
Speaking of better, all the Pirates need to be is one point better than the Generals, but Wheelersburg will need to play better for the game’s entirety than it did against the Falcons.
Despite its second-half success en route to the win, Wheelersburg struggled in the first half and trailed 3-0, and committed eight penalties for 90 yards.
The Pirates must eliminate those mistakes, especially against the Generals’ explosive offense, spearheaded by spread-offense quarterback Gabe Tingle.
In the regular season, Tingle — a 5-foot 11-inch 180-pound sophomore — slung the ball around for 2,052 yards and 22 touchdowns with only two interceptions.
He completed 70-percent of his passes on 99 out of 141 attempts, and also rushed for 726 yards on 83 carries with 15 trips to paydirt.
Tingle was a frontrunner for East District Division V Offensive Player of the Year, as the Generals — which steamrolled through the Inter-Valley Conference — played in nine games with a running clock with six of those 10 tilts featuring the starters not playing a down in the second half.
In the regional quarterfinals against Portsmouth, which the Generals rolled 56-21, Tingle completed a dozen passes on 19 attempts for 233 yards and a hat trick of TDs — and rushed eight times for 71 yards.
Tingle’s rushing statistics trailed only those of Kaden Smith, who had two touchdowns and 81 yards on only nine carries.
Smith caught three passes for 84 yards, while Koleton Smith hauled in all three of Tingle’s TDs— part of his eight receptions for 117 yards.
Portsmouth coach Bruce Kalb, in an interview previewing the Trojans’ playoff game against Ridgewood, said Tingle is the engine that makes the Generals’ machine run.
“Tingle is extremely athletic,” he said. “He’s the controller of all things in terms of their running game and passing game. He is really able to elude defenders with his feet. They spread the ball around a lot because it opens up holes for him to be able to run. And he is great at running the football and makes great decisions. Probably about 50-percent of the time, I would say he is given the go-ahead that if he likes what he sees to throw it, and if he doesn’t, he isn’t afraid just to tuck it and take off and run with it.”
Woodward compared Tingle to Greenup County (Ky.) quarterback and Marshall University signee Eli Sammons as far as a passing threat, while Minford signal-caller Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis best represents the running style that Tingle will present.
The coach added that Ashland (Ky.), which the Pirates rallied to defeat 34-33 in overtime for their initial victory of the season, offers similar speed at the skilled positions.
Tingle’s top receiver is in fact Koleten Smith — a 5-10 170-pound senior who had, in the regular season, 37 receptions for 778 yards and seven touchdowns with a 21.2 yards per catch average.
His lead lineman is six-foot one-inch 237-pound senior tackle John Evin, a three-year starter and second-team all-Ohioan last season.
“This will be our fifth time playing Ridgewood, so we have had experiences with them. I do think that this is one of their best put-together teams in terms of overall talent. They have stout lines, and a few big guys going both ways for them. They have a lot of one-back sets with a lot of things that they do, they show a lot of formations, and they take chances offensively,” said Woodward. “We’ve been put in situations where our players and coaching staff have been challenged to face these types of players and teams. We have to recognize where to best put our players and work towards the execution that it takes.”
Part of that execution, Woodward explained, is good tackling on Tingle.
“Tackling is huge this week because Tingle is extremely elusive and so good at avoiding tacklers with his feet,” said the coach.
The Pirates’ legs will be busy with running the football with Makya Matthews, quarterback Evan Horsley and even wide receiver Hunter Ruby, but Wheelersburg will be facing a stalwart General line.
Zach Prater (6-1, 290, jr.) and Bryce Prater (6-3, 280, jr.) are twin brothers — as Zach has 35 tackles, including eight for loss and five sacks, while Bryce has 23 tackles, including 11 for loss and four-and-a-half sacks.
The ends are Kaden Smith (5-11, 205, sr.) and J.J. Durr (5-11, 215, jr.), combining for 62 tackles, 22 of which were for loss with 11 sacks.
The Generals’ linebacking corps consists of the team’s top two tacklers — Deontae Brandon (6-0, 183, jr.) and Isaiah Lamneck (5-10, 170, sr.).
Brandon was first with 68 tackles including 11 for loss and five-and-a-half sacks, while Lamneck notched 61 tackles with eight for loss and four sacks.
“Their defensive line is stout with the Praters being bodies in the middle that makes it tough to run against,” said Woodward. “Then they have three linebackers that run to the ball well behind them. They are extremely aggressive on defense. They are a good quality football team which you would expect as you get into the second round.”
The Generals are coached by John Slusser, whom Woodward said “he always has good conversations with at coaching clinics and things.”
Both mentors are graduates of Ohio Wesleyan University, although Woodward is 3-0 against the Generals as a head coach — part of 4-0 overall as he was a Pirate assistant in 2007 (21-13).
That was also the last season in which the Pirates played at Lancaster for a playoff bout.
The Pirates also own wins over Ridgewood in 2010 (21-12), 2015 (42-21) and 2016 (37-6), but the perception this time is that Wheelersburg will enter as an underdog — against a General club many in and around West Lafayette believe may be the program’s best-ever.
For sure, Ridgewood will be the latest quality squad that the Pirates have played this season, joining the likes of 10-1 Ironton, 10-1 Columbus Hartley and undefeated Jackson.
In the SOC II, the Orange and Black beat 7-3 Minford, 8-2 Waverly and 5-5 Valley and Oak Hill.
“We have faced good teams too that have presented a lot of the same challenges. We have to go and attack them (Generals) with the same type of preparation that we put forth throughout this entire year,” said Woodward. “Good teams are going to have success in moments throughout the game. We have to continue to respond like we did last week and like we have all year. We have to be ready to go out and have a full four-quarter battle.”
The Pirates have had plenty of those while Ridgewood not many, so Wheelersburg will probably play cool under fire — if it comes to that.
“Playoff football is a whole different animal. A lot of factors come into play and teams have to be extremely prepared to go out and be successful,” said Woodward.
For those into counting, Woodward — in his 12th season as head coach — was doing some math, and counted now 28 Pirate playoff games in the last decade.
They will try to make it 29 with a regional championship game appearance, but first things first, they have to be a mere one point better than Ridgewood — regardless of how good these Generals are.
“Our kids understand what it takes to win at this level in a week-12,” said Woodward. “We hope to do it again Saturday night.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved