NELSONVILLE — As Ironton High School football made its rise in the 1970s and 1980s, how fitting for the 2019 Fighting Tigers to go retro in winning their 12th all-time regional championship.
After all, in an age and era when the game is all about athleticism, speed and slinging the ball all around — it was actually refreshing for the Fighting Tigers to capture Saturday night’s Division V Region 19 title tilt by dominating defensively, going on a ground assault, and being super-special on special teams.
As a result, Ironton — after a two-decade drought — is playing in the Ohio High School Athletic Association state semifinals, as the Fighting Tigers rallied past previously-undefeated Ridgewood for a 24-14 victory inside a rainy but jam-packed Boston Field at Nelsonville-York High School.
Both teams are now 12-1, but indeed it is Ironton — the top-seeded squad in Region 19 — advancing on to football’s Final Four for the first time since 1999.
It had been since 2009 and 2010, to be in exact, in which Ironton even advanced to the regional final — as the Tigers also prevented a General sweep of Southeast District teams en route to what would have been their second all-time regional crown.
Ironton second-year head coach Trevon Pendleton, the former Portsmouth West High School star, said his senior class of 14 “was going to be the one” to get the Fighting Tigers’ self-professed “order restored”.
“When I got hired almost two years ago, I told these seniors that they were the ones. This was going to happen with them,” said an elated Pendleton. “It all goes back to the offseason and the things we put them through. This team has built a brotherhood and a bond. They would do anything for each other and fight like brothers for each other. This feels so good. I’m so proud of these guys and I can’t say enough about them. We’re going to go celebrate this one tonight for sure.”
But no need to party and strike up Prince’s music, the Fighting Tigers’ triumph resembled one of their many wins from the 70s and 80s.
Defensively, their talented and highly-touted line got pressure on Ridgewood standout quarterback and East District Division V Co-Offensive Player of the Year Gabe Tingle, as Tingle completed only 10-of-28 passes for 112 yards with one interception by Collin Freeman.
Tingle also rushed for 56 yards and a one-yard third-quarter touchdown plunge on 17 carries, but of Ridgewood’s 225 total yards on 56 total plays, the Fighting Tigers only allowed 145 on 44 — following the Generals’ game-opening 80-yard, dozen-play, five-minute scoring drive.
In fact, Ironton forced four General punts including three following three-and-outs, as two General drives — one inside the red zone in the final 54 seconds of the opening half and the other from the 20-yard-line to midfield inside in the second half of the final quarter — resulted in critical turnovers on downs.
The second of those was with three-and-a-half minutes remaining, and followed a massive 34-yard field goal by Avery Book that made it 24-14 with only 6:15 to play.
While Saturday night was only the third time all season that the Fighting Tiger first-team defensive unit had allowed more than one touchdown in any one game, the Generals — which had averaged almost 50 points and 450 yards per game — easily scored a season-low (14).
After the game-opening drive which featured five first downs and was actually aided by an Ironton personal-foul penalty, the only other General drive of significance was its 11-play, 65-yard, four-minute march that picked up four first downs.
Tingle finished that off with his 1-yard sneak that made it 21-14 late in the third quarter, as Ridgewood — when starting in Ironton territory — only crossed midfield three times.
The Generals also dropped four of Tingle’s passes — one of which would have likely resulted in an 83-yard touchdown to make it 14-7 Ridgewood.
“Those guys on that (defensive) side of the ball can fly around. We had a great week of practice on defense, we got into a rhythm and we maintained time of possession, which is huge in games like this. We knew if we kept their offense off the field, it would be hard for them to score. We knew if we could force four or five punts, especially on three-and-outs, that we were in a very good position,” said Pendleton. “That’s what our ultimate goal was and we were able to accomplish that. The key to success was just playing disciplined and understanding what we were trying to accomplish. We gave some things up, but we were able to take away the things they like to do. We kept the ball in front of us, rallied to the football, played with great effort and got Tingle to the ground.”
Offensively, the power base of the Fighting Tigers’ running game was on full display, as they rushed for 270 yards on exactly 50 carries, with Reid Carrico carrying 20 times for 143 yards — easily highlighted by a bull in a China shop-style 55-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7-7.
Quarterback Gage Salyers rushed for 78 yards on 18 carries, as his 5-yard scoring sprint with 3:46 remaining in the second quarter made it 21-7 — and capped a 10-play, 48-yard four-minute and 36-second scoring drive.
Exactly six minutes earlier at 9:46, Cameron Deere took a sweep play 26 yards to the house to give Ironton the lead for good at 14-7 — as that Fighting Tiger scoring drive spanned six plays, 52 yards and exactly 2:36.
Deere rushed five times for 33 yards, as Ironton did not attempt a pass in the entire opening half — instead rushing 28 times for 187 yards, which included one lost fumble right at the General 20-yard-line at the five-minute mark of the first quarter.
But the tide turned in the Fighting Tigers’ favor over the final 17 minutes of the first half — when Ridgewood punted three times and the Fighting Tigers turned all three possessions into their 21 points.
“We’ve started nine or 10 different offensive linemen. The guys up front, we just kept pounding away at them and told them that they are going to be the reason for our offensive success, especially running like we did tonight, They’ve come so far since the first game,” said Pendleton. “Then our skilled guys in the backfield, we’re deep and can rotate in those positions. With Reid (Carrico) running the ball and Gage (Salyers) running the offense as a whole, all of our guys came up big again.”
Ironton added 83 yards on 22 second-half carries, as Salyers completed a pair of second-half passes on four attempts — one for 20 yards to Carrico and another for 11 to Ashton Duncan.
For their final three points, Book booted his 34-yard field goal, but it was special teams that took center stage for the final 25 minutes.
Following Freeman’s interception of Tingle — and an unsportsman-like conduct call which started the Ironton possession at the 10 — Book punted following three plays and two five-yard penalties, but his shank kick covered only 12 yards.
With 54 seconds remaining in the second, the Generals started from the Fighting Tiger 17, but a Tingle first-down pass to Kaden Smith — who rushed for 51 yards on 10 tries — resulted in a 2-yard loss.
Tingle then threw three consecutive incompletions, as Ironton — with 10 ticks till halftime — had made its biggest defensive stand of the game.
“I was really proud of how we handled that sudden-change situation,” said Pendleton. “We got a poor punt off, gave them short field position, but our defense extinguished that fire right away.”
With Ironton then leading 21-14, another penalty-filled Tiger possession ended with Salyers’ two incompletions at his own 36.
But Book — just 20 seconds into the fourth quarter — pulled off an incredible 63-yard punt that pinned the Generals all the way back to their own goal-line.
The ball first bounced at around the Ridgewood 25, then perfectly — and even properly — spun on a dime and rolled all the way inside the 1-yard-line where the Tigers downed the ball.
Ridgewood went three-and-out again and actually avoided getting called for a safety, as Ironton began its next series at the General 32 —and moved six plays and 15 yards before Book, the ever-reliable left-footer, booted the ball straight through the uprights.
“Anytime you get a two-score lead late in the game when you have an offense that is able to chew up clock, it definitely gives you a cushion and makes you feel better about yourself in that situation,” said Pendleton. “That drive we were also able to conserve our defense a little bit and we knew we were going to get one last stop.”
Finally, Book’s 35-yard punt with only 27 seconds remaining was once again downed at the 1-yard-line — this time by Deere and Kyle Howell.
Book also made all three of his extra-point kicks, and made a major difference on kickoffs with his four touchbacks out of a possible five chances.
“Avery has done a great job of punting and kicking all year for us. Our special teams came up huge with a lot of touchbacks, and with the big punt to pin them deep early in the fourth quarter. It seemed like they had bad field position all night,” said Pendleton.
And, when the Fighting Tigers faced any adversity on Saturday night, they handled it well.
“That’s the thing about us. We’re able to beat a storm,” said Pendleton. “We got down 7-0 and they moved the ball right down the field on us, but we just stayed the course. I was asked what all changes did we make after their first possession. I said we didn’t make any. We just settled in and played great defense.”
And great defense, like a sound ground-and-pound running game and super special teams, wins championships.
Indeed, Ironton played the wayback machine in winning Region 19.
The Tigers will now face West Jefferson in the Division V state semifinals on Saturday night, Nov. 30 at 7 p.m.
The contest will take place, as announced by the OHSAA on Sunday afternoon, at Herrnstein Field in Chillicothe.
* * *
Ironton 24, Ridgewood 14
Ridgewood 7 0 7 o — 14
Ironton 7 14 0 3 — 24
R — Deontae Brandon, 4-yard run (Connor Kunze kick), 7:06, 1st (7-0 R)
I — Reid Carrico, 55-yard run (Avery Book kick), 2:37, 1st (7-7 tie)
I — Cameron Deere, 26-yard run (Avery Book kick), 9:46, 2nd (14-7 I)
I — Gage Salyers, 5-yard run (Avery Book kick), 3:46, 2nd (21-7 I)
R — Gabe Tingle, 1-yard run (Connor Kunze kick), 3:14, 3rd (21-14 I)
I — Avery Book, 34-yard field goal, 6:15, 4th (24-14 I)
First downs 14 16
Plays from scrimmage 56 54
Rushes-yards 28-113 50-270
Passing yards 112 31
Total yards 225 301
Cmp-Att-Int. 10-28-1 2-4-0-31
Fumbles-lost 1-0 2-1
Penalties-yards 2-16 13-100
Punts-average 4-30.25 3-36.7
RUSHING —Ridgewood: Gabe Tingle 17-56 TD, Kaden Smith 10-51, Deontae Brandon 2-6 TD; Ironton: Reid Carrico 20-143 TD, Gage Salyers 18-78 TD, Cameron Deere 5-33 TD, Seth Fosson 4-12, Trevor Carter 1-7, Team 2-(-3)
PASSING — Ridgewood: Gabe Tingle 10-28-1-112; Ironton: Gage Salyers 2-4-0-31
RECEIVING — Ridgewood: Dalton Patterson 4-48, Koleton Smith 4-48, Connor Kunze 1-18, Kaden Smith 1-(-2); Ironton: Reid Carrico 1-20, Ashton Duncan 1-11
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