IRONTON — The Ironton Fighting Tigers own 11 football regional championships.
However, they have experienced a decade-long drought since they played for their last — and exactly two decades worth since they even last won one.
How fitting then, with rain and possibly even some snow predicted with a few weather forecasts for Saturday night, that Ironton can end that long, dry, nagging regional title spell — against a polar opposite squad whose only regional championship was a decade ago itself.
In the first-ever meeting between Ironton and Ridgewood, the one-loss and top-seeded Fighting Tigers (11-1) tangle with the undefeated and second-seeded Generals (12-0) in the Division V Region 19 championship — set for Saturday night at historic Boston Field in Nelsonville on the campus of Nelsonville-York High School.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Ironton, indeed, is the only Southeast District team remaining in these state playoffs — following a rough 1-6 regional semifinal weekend for the Southeast.
But, it’s a good “problem” for the proud and tradition-rich Fighting Tiger program to have — as Ironton is easily and often regarded as the most successful football school in the entire Southeast District.
The state playoffs are obviously overly-familiar for the Fighting Tigers, as their 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 47-32 all-time in the tournament, as they have reached the state championship game eight times — while winning titles in 1979 and 1989.
The 11 regional championships are tied for 13th all-time in the state with both Cleveland Benadictine and Columbus DeSales, as Ironton is tied for first with Newark Catholic and Coldwater with six state runners-up.
But 1999, under legendary head coach Bob Lutz, was the Tigers’ last appearance in the state championship game — and it’s been since 2009 and 2010 that they even last appeared in the regional finals.
In fact, the 2009 regional championship loss against Coshocton — Ridgewood’s rival to be precise — took place at Nelsonville-York ‘s Boston Field.
The Fighting Tigers lost 20-14 in overtime, following their 20-14 overtime triumph over Heath in the regional semifinals at Nelsonville-York the week before.
But with ‘79, ‘89, ‘99, ‘09 and now ‘19 being some of the most successful seasons in program history, these 2019 Fighting Tigers try to take that next step into Ironton’s “immortality”.
“These are games that we live for in this town,” said second-year Ironton head coach and former Portsmouth West High School standout Trevon Pendleton, in an interview on Tuesday. “These are the games that our kids, our staff and our community looks forward to. These are the games that get talked about, but like we told our kids since we got here, this is where we want to be and expect to be. Our kids have worked to put themselves in this position, so all the credit goes to them.”
As Ironton is the only Southeast District club remaining in the state playoffs, and represented the most with 12 total selections including Pendleton as TRI-Coach of the Year on the Division V all-Southeast District team, the Fighting Tigers are only six points and an (16-10) overtime loss at archrival Ashland (Ky.) away from being undefeated along with the Generals.
The Fighting Tiger first-team defensive 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).
In Ironton’s 31-7 Region 19 semifinal victory over Amanda-Clearcreek, the Fighting Tigers forced four A-C turnovers — and allowed only 200 rushing yards to the run-heavy Aces, including 132 on 21 carries by A-C quarterback Peyton Madison.
Madison, who also had 58 passing yards, scored the Aces’ only touchdown — a 33-yard run.
Ironton, however, scored the final 24 points over the final three quarters — rushing for 325 yards on 57 attempts itself.
“Our size and our scheme helped play a role in that win,” said Pendleton.
Truth be told, it wasn’t because of neatness, as Ironton fumbled six times and lost half of them — but the 13 penalties for 110 yards with three personal fouls was most alarming.
Pendleton has discussed the importance of his Tigers playing mistake-free football time and again — and did so again on Tuesday.
If Ironton is to repeat the same mistakes against the talented and highly-touted Generals, Ridgewood will most certainly take distinct advantage — as it did in its 42-17 semifinal win over Wheelersburg.
“We didn’t play our cleanest game by any means. Too many turnovers and penalties, and those are unforced errors that we can control. We talk about it every week, but that’s something that we definitely have to clean up going into this week against somebody as good as Ridgewood. Amanda-Clearcreek was a very good opponent, but fortunately, we were able to overcome many of the mistakes that we made and were able to capitalize and bounce right back and either force a turnover ourselves or get a quick stop,” he said. “You have to be able to positively react t0 what we call those ‘sudden change’ situations where field position is flipped real fast or a turnover that happens. Anytime you can react as an offense and take advantage and score, or as a defense and can stand tall and force a three-and-out right away, you really like your chances. We’ve been able to do that and handle adversity all year for the most part. Hopefully, we play a much cleaner game against Ridgewood. Ultimately, it comes down to focus and attention to detail.”
And, attention to detail — in defending the Generals’ spread-the-field offensive attack spearheaded by sophomore quarterback Gabe Tingle — is paramount this week.
While Ironton’s defense is stout, and having surrendered just 69 points all year, it is undoubtedly facing the best offense it has encountered with the Generals, which have averaged 49 points per game — and with Tingle as the engineer.
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.
He was named the East District’s Division V Offensive Co-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.
He was even better in the regional semifinals against Wheelersburg — throwing for 288 yards and four scores on 15-of-22 while rushing for 93 yards and a touchdown on 16 totes.
Containing Tingle is the top priority for the Fighting Tiger defense, which is anchored by the Southeast District Division V Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Reid Carrico.
Two of the Tigers’ defensive linemen, first-team all-district selections and seniors Seth Fosson and Junior Jones, must get pressure on the elusive Tingle and tackle him.
For Pendleton, the ‘X’ marks the defensive spot.
“They (Generals) have a lot of guys on that side of the ball that are very good players and capable of scoring anytime you let them get loose. But the key when you are playing a potent offense like this is to stop them before they get started. If you can come out early and be aggressive and draw an ‘X’ in the sand and stand on that ‘X’ and solidify yourself on that side of the ball, you’ll feel good,” said the coach. “We need to make big plays on defense, and it has to be all night with the same intensity from start to finish. Anytime you are playing this spread-style offense, tackling in space is huge. Tingle tries to get the ball out to their best athletes in space, and they try to rely on their athletes being as good or better than your athletes and having a lot of room to maneuver with. You definitely have to play with great leverage, finish plays and get guys like Tingle on the ground.”
Tingle’s top receiver is 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.
Against Portsmouth, he had eight receptions for 117 yards and three TDs — before adding seven catches for 115 yards and a 49-yard jump-starting score against Wheelersburg.
The lead lineman is six-foot one-inch 237-pound senior tackle John Evin, a three-year starter and second-team all-Ohioan last season.
Connor Kunze, who kicked six extra points apiece against Portsmouth and Wheelersburg, made five receptions for 164 yards against the Pirates — three of which went for TDs.
But perhaps the Fighting Tigers’ best defense can be their offense — with ball-controlling, clock-consuming, game-shortening scoring drives.
That keeps the ball out of Tingle’s hands, and in the possession of quarterback Gage Salyers and the running back Carrico.
Against the Aces, Salyers rushed 20 times for 122 yards, while Carrico carried 17 times for 85.
“This time of year, it’s those teams that are able to control the ball that usually win the game. But ultimately, it’s those teams that are able to capitalize and finish off drives. Whether that be through the air or on the ground, whatever we have to do,” said Pendleton. “We are very dynamic on offense, it’s a very unselfish group, and we trust all of our guys to make every play. It’s just a matter of what we need to do that week to get the job done.”
However, the Generals’ defense does its job just as well as its noteworthy offense.
Zach Prater (6-1, 290, jr.) and Bryce Prater (6-3, 280, jr.) are twin brothers — as in the regular season Zach had 35 tackles, including eight for loss and five sacks, while Bryce had 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.
“They are very similar to our defense and have a lot of athletes on the field. But at the same time, I don’t think anyone gives our offense enough credit,” said Pendleton. “These guys are going to be ready for anything you throw at them. They go against what I consider to be the best defense in the state week in and week out in practice. That said, Ridgewood is a very good team that is fundamentally sound and does a lot of great things.”
Which makes for, per Pendleton, “a clash of two titans that we are definitely looking forward to”.
“I would rather play 10 to 15 of these games every year as opposed to some of the games that are lopsided. It just has a different buzz about it and even a rivalry feel for it,” he said.
Ridgewood, with 2009 in Division V as its only regional championship, is 8-13 all-time in the tournament — and is attempting to sweep Southeast District opponents en route to its second.
That year, the sixth-seeded Generals defeated Minford (36-10) and Oak Hill (20-12) from the Southeast — before defeating Fredericktown from the Central.
Indeed, Ironton is the last line of defense against Ridgewood — and for the Southeast District.
However, as per Pendleton, the Fighting Tigers’ travels don’t end at Nelsonville-York.
“The ultimate goal wasn’t to reach the regional final. It is to win the region, win the state semifinal and win the Division V state championship. This is just another stepping stone on that path. We shouldn’t just be satisfied to stop here. We have bigger and better aspirations beyond just playing in this regional championship game,” he said.
But, in order for Ironton to reach those loftier goals, its regional titles MUST first be better by the dozen following Saturday night.
“This game is the biggest of the year because it’s the next one. It’s definitely important,” said Pendleton. “Anytime you can win a game involving a trophy, it’s a great feeling. We are looking forward to Saturday and playing Ridgewood.”
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