IRONTON — Indeed, Ironton expected to be here.
Now, it’s about returning to the regional championship game — something that the Fighting Tigers haven’t done in a decade.
And, to their passionate fan base, that’s been way too long.
The Fighting Tigers, easily arguably Southeast Ohio’s most tradition-rich football program, take that next step towards re-establishing themselves as one of the state’s best — when they face the Amanda-Clearcreek Aces in a Division V Region 19 semifinal on Saturday night.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. inside Alumni Stadium in Jackson — a familiar Fighting Tiger playoff venue and actually the site of their preseason scrimmage just this year against the host Ironmen.
Ironton last played for a regional championship in 2009 and 2010, and actually hasn’t advanced beyond the regional quarterfinals in five years, while it also lost in 2011 and 2012 in the regional semifinals.
But this season — oh yeah — the talented and highly-touted Fighting Tigers undoubtedly expected to be playing for a regional championship.
However, Ironton isn’t about just playing for regional titles…it is about winning them.
In fact, 11 times Ironton has captured a regional crown, as the state playoffs are obviously overly-familiar for the Fighting Tiger program, as its now 35 all-time appearances are tied for second-most in Ohio High School Athletic Association history with Cincinnati Moeller.
Only Newark Catholic, with 36 including this year, leads Moeller and Ironton.
The Fighting Tigers are 46-32 all-time in the tournament, as they have reached the state championship game eight times — while winning titles in 1979 and 1989.
But this Tiger team of 2019, the top-seeded squad in Region 19, wants to establish its own legacy.
Ironton opened the playoffs, following its 9-1 regular season and outright Ohio Valley Conference championship, with a 50-point (56-6) regional-quarterfinal rout of underdog Wellston.
The Golden Rockets were playing in just their third playoff game in school history.
“Whenever you are in the postseason, you are playing quality opponents. You can throw records and what you’ve done in years past out the window. We didn’t play our best game or execute in all phases like we would like, but we played with a lot of effort. When we had the opportunity to make plays, we were able to capitalize on that and make those plays,” said Ironton coach Trevon Pendleton, in an interview on Tuesday. “That was ultimately the difference in the game. It was definitely a fun night and a fun way to get our first playoff win.”
It was also the first playoff win for the second-year mentor Pendleton, who was one of three coaches on Friday to officially be announced as Division V Southeast District Coach of The Year.
In fact, Pendleton’s previous two wins are against the two coaches he shared the award with — Portsmouth’s Bruce Kalb and Wellston’s Mike Smith.
Now, Pendleton coaches against another tradition-rich program in Amanda-Clearcreek, which is making its 21st all-time playoff appearance — and has eight regional championships of its own.
The Aces are 34-18 all-time in the playoffs, and have two state titles like Ironton — the last of which was two decades ago in 2000.
Amanda-Clearcreek cleared its first playoff hurdle by rolling Columbus Academy 41-10, as the Aces enter at 9-2 — with losses against Division IV Waverly (48-13) and Division II Teays Valley (28-21).
And, Amanda is aiming for its first victory over Ironton, with this being the fourth all-time meeting between the two proud schools.
The Fighting Tigers trumped the Aces in the 2011 regional quarterfinals 12-9, before winning regular-season meetings in 2013 (14-7) and 2014 (34-23).
Of course, 2019 is a newer — and much different — animal, although these Aces are a run-heavy squad.
“They are playing their best football here as of late and are definitely getting better and better,” said Pendleton.
Pendleton said Amanda-Clearcreek is similar to his Fighting Tigers, and that a loss actually did them some good.
Ironton, after its only defeat of the season at archrival Ashland (16-10) in overtime, has simply steamrolled its competition since — allowing only 62 points which includes three shutouts.
“A loss sometimes is the best thing to ever happen to you,” said Pendleton.
The Fighting Tiger first-team unit, in fact, has not allowed more than one touchdown in any one game — aside from the two against Ashland and two against Coal Grove (49-12).
That Ironton defense will indeed be tested against the Aces’ offense, which averages almost 33 points per game — as the 360 A-C has scored is the most points put up by any Ironton opponent all year.
The Aces are paced by senior quarterback Peyton Madison (5-11, 175) and senior running back Alex Fairchild (5-8, 153), as Madison easily leads the way with 143 carries for 1,061 yards and 17 touchdowns — good enough for a 7.4 yards per carry average.
Madison is 67-of-113 passing for 864 yards and seven scores, but the Aces only prefer to throw the ball when things are going their way.
They didn’t need to last week against Columbus Academy — with Madison amassing an even 200 rushing yards on 13 carries, while completing 4-of-6 passes for 88 yards.
Fairchild finished with 14 totes for 173 yards and a hat trick of touchdowns.
“They like to run the ball. They definitely hang their hat on running the ball. The quarterback is very elusive, and they have a few other backs which are very physical kids,” said Pendleton. “And they do a good job of running the ball. They are very disciplined and well-coached. I think it’s going to be a great test Saturday night and we are looking forward to it. The biggest thing is getting off the field quickly by forcing three-and-outs. We want to get our offense right back out there. Their offense wants to stay on the field and chew up the clock. Their style is keep the ball on the ground and keep the clock moving. They want to put you in a phone booth and beat you up a little bit. They will try to control the ball, get numbers at the point of attack, and take their four or five yards all night long if you give it to them.”
When Madison does throw, his top targets are seniors Jayse Miller (6-1, 178) and Brock Banker (5-11, 188) — as Miller has 20 receptions for 310 yards and four scores while Banker has 21 catches for 300 yards and two TDs.
The key matchup will be how well Amanda-Clearcreek blocks Ironton’s defensive line, which has three all-Southeast District honorees — including first-team seniors Seth Fosson and Junior Jones.
Ironton also has the Southeast District Division V Defensive Player of the Year in inside linebacker Reid Carrico.
If Ironton is able to get on the Aces early, the advantage is for the Fighting Tigers, as Amanda-Clearcreek cares simply not to have to throw.
“It’s always important in any game to get the ball rolling early and get off to a good start,” said Pendleton. “When you have high school kids in a sport like football, momentum is huge. One way or another. If you can get off to a good start and get that momentum going, it can easily flip the outcome.”
Ironton, on its offensive end, isn’t bad either — as long as it is not turning the ball over or committing silly penalties.
Even against Wellston, in which they led 49-6 at halftime, the Fighting Tigers had six penalties for 60 yards.
“We have to play mistake-free football if we’re going to win,” said Pendleton. “A lot of penalties and everything we’ve had this year, those are self-inflicted. But ever since we got into a game where our guys are settled in and they are playing more snaps, and we’re not rotating guys in to play positions that they are not comfortable with, the penalties have cleaned themselves up. The turnovers are the result of just backs fighting for extra yardage and trying to make plays.”
Ironton’s offense is indeed one predicated upon those big plays, as first-team all-Southeast District quarterback Gage Salyers has torched defenses for 1,300 passing yards and 11 touchdowns on 63-of-120 with only four interceptions.
He has also rushed 70 times for 527 yards with 10 touchdowns, while the 6-3, 225-pound Carrico carries the running attack with 141 carries for 1,083 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Carrico now has back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, with an average of 7.7 yards per carry — as Salyers stands at seven-and-a-half yards per clip.
Look for the Fighting Tigers to perhaps play keep-away themselves, and try to put the Aces in an early hole.
Ironton is indeed, once again, a favorite for a victory — as it was expected to be here with the chance to play for a regional title.
“Definitely looking forward to it. We expected ourselves to be in this position and now we’re here. We expect a battle against Amanda,” Pendleton. “Any time you can get two programs from this part of the state with so much history on one field as these two have, it makes for a great game.”
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