IRONTON — Once again, although for the first time in two decades, the Ironton Fighting Tigers — yes that famed Fighting Tiger Orange and Black — are practicing football on Black Friday.
But to them, there’s only one ultimate early Christmas gift.
That is the Fighting Tigers still playing actual, and official, Ohio High School Athletic Association football games on the final day of November — and into December.
One of those goals in Ironton’s ultimate mission has been met — that being the Fighting Tigers captured their first regional championship in the sport since 1999.
The other, of course, can be accomplished and checked off the “rain-bucket” list on Saturday night — when Ironton (12-1) and the fellow 12-1 West Jefferson Roughriders square off in one of two Division V state semifinals, which is set for a 7 p.m. kickoff inside Herrnstein Field in Chillicothe.
Ironton — after its 24-14 victory over previously-undefeated Ridgewood — is the Region 19 champion, while West Jefferson — after avenging its only loss of the season — is the champion of Region 20.
For the Fighting Tigers (48-32 all-time in playoffs), a win over the Roughriders means their first appearance in a state championship game since 1999 — and their would-be ninth overall as they have two titles in 1979 and 1989.
The Fighting Tigers-Roughriders winner will meet the winner of the other Division V state semifinal — which features a battle of undefeateds in Oak Harbor (13-0) and Kirtland (13-0).
While that semi in Strongsville occupies the attention of northern Ohio, all eyes of the Southeast and Central Districts in Division V will be on Chillicothe — and two of the most proud and tradition-rich programs in all of the Buckeye State.
In an interview on Tuesday, at historic Tanks Memorial Stadium in Ironton, second-year Fighting Tiger coach Trevon Pendleton summarized his club’s journey to the Final Four.
Only a 16-10 overtime loss at archrival Ashland has prevented a perfect season, but Ironton opened by rolling rival Wheelersburg and defeating the Pirates for the first time since 2012 — a stretch that included two playoff tilts.
The Fighting Tigers tore through the Ohio Valley Conference, then won over Wellston (Region 19 quarterfinals), Amanda-Clearcreek (Region 19 semifinals) and Ridgewood (Region 19 finals) en route to this state semi.
Pendleton, prior to Tuesday’s practice and two days prior to Thanksgiving Day, was a man counting his blessings.
“It sounds like a year’s worth of hard work,” he said. “Our kids, going all the way back to the offseason, have put in the time and effort to make this dream of theirs become a reality. We’re truly thankful for all the work our kids have put in. Our coaching staff puts in long hours, and I know I say this every week, but I am so thankful for all of my assistants. We’re 14 weeks into this thing now, and our kids are still loving and wanting to play football as if it’s week one. It’s refreshing to see a group of kids come through like this. It starts with our team leadership and just trickles right down throughout the entire team. It’s exciting, our kids are really enjoying the moment and it’s a special group to be a part of.”
Speaking of special groups, the Fighting Tiger first-team defense has allowed only 83 points all season, surrendered more than one touchdown in a game only three times, and grounded Ridgewood to only 225 total yards and 14 points.
As guessed, those were season-lows for the Generals, given they averaged almost 50 points and 450 yards per game prior to the regional final.
Spearheaded by its talented and highly-touted line putting pressure on General quarterback Gabe Tingle, the East District Co-Offensive Player of the Year, the Tigers’ defense only allowed 145 yards of total offense — after Ridgewood scored on its opening series.
“Ironton is very good, especially defensively. Exceptional actually. They are extremely physical and the best thing they do is run to the football,” said West Jefferson coach Shawn Buescher. “I’m very impressed with their front. They get after the ball. They are relentless in their pursuit. Their linebackers seem to be very good. Their back half of the defense does an excellent job in the passing game, so they are everything you’d think they’d be in a great defense.”
Pendleton praised his defense — anchored by the Southeast District Division V Defensive Player of the Year in inside linebacker Reid Carrico, who has verbally committed to Ohio State.
He and fellow junior linebacker Cameron Deere were first-team all-Southeast District defensive players, as were senior linemen Seth Fosson (end) and Junior Jones (tackle).
Ironton is allowing an average of only 108 rushing yards per game, and an even better 76 yards passing per game.
The Fighting Tigers have 15 interceptions, paced by safety Gage Salyers with four — as Salyers is a first-team all-district quarterback who was also strongly considered for that list as a defensive back.
Include the likes of junior ends Gunnar Crawford and Dalton Crabtree, defensive tackle Nate Cochran, and senior cover corners Collin Freeman and Jordan Grizzle — and Ironton offers an iron wall against its opponents.
The Generals presented the toughest test to the Fighting Tigers to date, and Ironton almost aced that exam with close to flying colors.
“It’s about being physical, but also being aggressive but disciplined, and everyone understanding leverage and where they fit it and getting multiple hats to the football,” said Pendleton. “Last week, we did a very good job of being disciplined and aggressive. It was a testament to the many hours we spend in the film room. Then understanding who we are playing and what we like to take away.”
What West Jefferson will do, said Pendleton — despite Buescher’s son and sophomore quarterback Tyler Buescher (5-11, 150 pounds) throwing for 32 touchdowns and 2,635 yards on 145-of-196 passing for a 74-percent completion rate — is run the ball.
The Fighting Tigers have yet to see an offensive line of the Roughriders’ size, as West Jefferson sports five seniors up front — with only left tackle Josh Hart (6-2, 250) not weighing at least 285-to-290 pounds.
“We start five seniors on the offensive line, and we’ve been very good up front which allows us to run the football at a high level,” said Coach Buescher. “We’ve been most successful in our playoff run here because we’ve been able to run behind our offensive line.”
Carrying the football has been 5-11, 175-pound senior running back Gabe Jones — who has amassed an eye-popping and jaw-dropping 2,606 yards and 39 touchdowns on 246 carries.
That’s good for almost 11 (10.6) yards per carry, as Jones — with a massive 287 yards and five touchdowns on a hefty 29 attempts — and the Roughriders ran roughshod over West Liberty-Salem in the Region 20 final.
West Jefferson pitched a 34-0 blowout shutout in that regional championship, and avenged its only defeat— a 42-39 shootout loss at West Liberty-Salem on Oct. 18.
Jones also has 21 receptions and six scores for 445 yards out of the backfield, as the Roughriders’ receiving leaders are juniors Tyler Oberle (5-10, 160) and Kyle Scott (5-10, 150).
Both Oberle and Scott have 38 receptions apiece, as Oberle has 911 yards with 11 TDs — while Scott has 602 yards and six trips to paydirt.
Pendleton said when West Jefferson does throw the ball, it’s a vertical style.
“They go some spread, but they will go double wings and try to give you a six-man or seven-man surface up front. They like to remove people out of the box, depending on what coverage they are getting. They like to run the ball and get numbers at the point of attack and use their size to their advantage,” said the coach. “They are very big up front and they like to hang their hat on running the ball. The quarterback is the coach’s son and is definitely a capable thrower. He is very good at play-action and when they throw, they like to take deep shots downfield. They try to take the lid off the coverage. We have to play disciplined and aggressive and it’s another offense that you have to stop before they can get started.”
The coach said the same thing about Ridgewood’s offense, but said West Jefferson focuses first on running the ball — whereas Ridgewood relies more on its passing attack.
“It’s completely different (from Ridgewood). They are not a team that wants to go out and throw the ball all over the yard. They like to run the ball and run the ball downhill. Not so much East and West running as opposed to North and South,” said Pendleton. “They are good up front, they have a very good back in the (Gabe) Jones kid, and they have some playmakers.”
Both coaches also said certain downs must be won — with Pendleton pointing to first down while Buescher said the third-down battle is paramount.
“Our number-one key is winning on first down and getting them into second-and-long, not second-and-manageable. If we can accomplish that and get them off-track in their play-calling and what they want to do, I think we’re gonna have success,” said Pendleton.
“We can’t give a team like Ironton, that does a great job in the run game with several running backs that run hard and can change at the line of scrimmage so well, any extra possessions or snaps,” said Buescher. “We have to win third down and get off the field defensively and get our offense back out there. When we face third down, we need to convert and keep the ball. We have to take care of the football first, but keeping it and picking up first downs on third downs is going to be crucial in this game.”
Buescher knows a thing or two about winning, as he has been at West Jefferson for 18 seasons — having completely turned around and rebuilt the program into a stronghold after it fell on hard times in the 1990s.
He hails from Wellston originally and graduated from the University of Rio Grande, after transferring to Westfall as a senior — when Wellston was forced to resort to its infamous “pay-to-participate” football season of 1991.
He served as an assistant at Oak Hill, Chillicothe and Wellston — before taking over at West Jefferson in 2002.
The rest, as they say, is history — with the Roughriders winning eight conference championships and qualifying for the state playoffs 10 times.
Buescher is 138-71 in his 18 seasons so far, as his Roughriders from Madison County have seven regional runner-ups — and one other regional championship in 2013.
While Ironton now owns a dozen regional championships, the Region 20 title was West Jefferson’s fifth all-time (1976, 1977, 1982 and 2013)— as the Roughriders are in the playoffs for the 22nd campaign, with a record of 26-19.
The Roughriders also own two state titles — in 1976 and 1982.
Buescher has never faced Ironton, at any level, before Saturday night.
However, he holds the Fighting Tiger program and all of its rich history in the highest of regards.
The state playoffs are obviously overly-familiar for the Fighting Tigers, as their now 35 all-time appearances are tied for second-most in OHSAA history with Cincinnati Moeller.
Only Newark Catholic, with 36 including this year, leads Moeller and Ironton.
The meeting marks the first-ever between the Fighting Tigers and Roughriders.
“We are excited about competing against Ironton,” said Buescher. “Their program has so much history, has been the most visible program in Southeastern Ohio for a long time. I have a lot of respect for that program and what they have done. I’m sure their kids are excited and their staff is excited. We’re hoping to put our best foot forward. It should be an exciting night for both communities.”
There’s no doubt about that, but both teams do want to win — and advance to the state championship game on Saturday, Dec. 7 in Canton.
That said, the Fighting Tigers were still practicing football on Black Friday — with the aim of winning on the final day of November and still playing actual, and official, football the opening week of December.
“The later in the season you are playing, the higher the stakes are getting. When you are playing for championships and a chance to do something special that not a lot of people are getting to do, it’s something we’re definitely not taking for granted,” said Pendleton. “We know how hard it is to get here, and there are a lot of great teams out there not playing football right now. We’re not taking it for granted, but we’re definitely not satisfied either. You feel the energy in the town and in the kids, and they are excited to be here, but as I tell them each week the mission isn’t accomplished. We’re going to keep showing up here to work and keep after it. We’re still attacking this thing each and every day, and our goals aren’t complete yet.”
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