IRONTON — They say to save your best for last.
Well, Ironton Fighting Tigers, here is your last game for the 2019 football season — so make it your best one yet.
Because, if Ironton indeed does play its best game in this the Fighting Tigers’ 15th and final for the year, the Orange and Black will officially be back as a three-time state champion.
In THE final football game for the Ohio High School Athletic Association in 2019, the 13-1 Fighting Tigers take on undefeated and powerhouse Kirtland (14-0) in the Division V state championship tilt — set for Saturday night at 8 p.m. inside spectacular Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
All seven state championships will be televised live on Spectrum News 1, and be broadcast along the OHSAA Radio Network to its 63 affiliates statewide.
Ironton and Kirtland cap off the season with a state title on the line, which would be the Fighting Tigers’ third all-time — along with championships in 1979 and 1989.
The Fighting Tigers are playing in their ninth all-time state title bout, as they have been the runners-up six times (1973, 1982, 1988, 1992, 1993 and 1999)— the last of which was the controversial 16-14 loss in 1999 to Sandusky Perkins.
That season was the first for the OHSAA’s expanded playoffs, which remains in place today with eight teams in each region qualifying for the postseason.
Speaking of eight teams, Ironton and Kirtland were the top-seeded squads in their respective regions, as Ironton won its 12th all-time regional title by taking Region 19 — while the Hornets, a four-time state champion (2011, 2013, 2015 and 2018) and three-time state runner-up (2012, 2014 and 2017) and all within the past decade, swept through Region 17.
In fact, the Hornets have the longest current active winning streak in the entire state of ANY school — having won 29 consecutive contests dating back to the 2017 Division VI state championship game against Marion Local.
Kirtland — last season’s Division VI state champion but moved back up to Division V this year — was also the Division V Associated Press poll champion, having been voted as the top-ranked team in all seven of the weekly polls.
Ironton, in that same poll, appeared all seven times as well — and ended up finishing fifth on the list.
But this week, polls — and past and recent history — don’t matter.
The Fighting Tigers, as head coach Trevon Pendleton completes his second season, are excited about the opportunity to finish what they started — which is hashtagged as #Mission15.
If Ironton wins on Saturday night, not only do the Fighting Tigers take back home a third state championship, but also their 50th all-time tournament triumph.
“We’re trying to treat it just as any other week, but our kids understand what’s at stake. They are looking forward to it. It’s an exciting experience that very few people ever get to experience and they are taking it all in. But at the same time, they are not getting caught up in the glitz and glamour of it,” said Pendleton, in an interview on Tuesday inside historic Tanks Memorial Stadium in Ironton. “At the end of the day, they know they have to play a football game, and they are looking forward to that more than anything. If your kids aren’t amped-up for this, they are not going to be amped-up for anything.”
The Fighting Tigers, truth be told, had in Pendleton’s own words “Kirtland on the clock” following the 49-21 state semifinal steamrolling of West Jefferson.
Ironton is on a roll with its winning streak now at 10 — its only loss a 16-10 overtime defeat at archrival Ashland (Ky.) on Sept. 20.
At the time, Pendleton said that setback “might be the best thing to happen” to his Fighting Tigers — and it’s been hard to argue against since.
If anything, Ironton is in fact playing its best football for the season, especially the last two weeks — with wins over Ridgewood (24-14) in the Region 19 championship and West Jefferson (49-21) in the state semi.
Pendleton pointed that out, and said that the Fighting Tigers are in a rhythm and a routine — now having played Saturday night games for four weeks straight going on five.
“Playing this game Saturday night keeps us in the same routine and we don’t have to change up a ton of things. The kids are comfortable with it because we’ve done it for the last month. It definitely helps. And I still don’t think we’ve played our best game or our most complete football game yet,” said Pendleton. “We’ve played well in the playoffs, probably played our best two games so far the last two weeks, but we’re still looking forward to playing our best game. Hopefully, everything comes together and the stars align this week and we are able to accomplish that. I think the sky is the limit for this football team, I really do.”
The sky might be the limit, but don’t expect to see — if both clubs are left to their own devices — too many footballs flying through the air.
The Hornets especially almost exclusively run the football 45 times or more per game, and although they graduated a large offensive line last year and are nowhere near as big this season, they are very quick and aggressive.
Ironton has played primarily running teams in Amanda-Clearcreek (Region 19 semifinals) and West Jefferson (state semifinal), but nothing like these run-heavy Hornets.
The Hornets had just three starters return off last year’s state title team, but 21 letterwinners returned, despite the program’s moveup back to Division V for the first time since 2012.
Kirtland averages 41 points per game, along with 321 yards and a seven-and-a-half yards per carry average.
The top two Hornet runners are Mason Sullivan (6-1, 193, Jr.) and Luke Gardner (5-9, 176, Sr.), as Sullivan is two yards shy of exactly 1,800 on 216 carries — with 30 touchdowns and an average yards per carry of 8.3.
Gardner has scored 23 times with an 11.2 yards per carry average, rushing 137 times for 1,535 yards.
The quarterback is Liam Powers (5-10, 180, Jr.), who has rushed 54 times for 249 yards — having completed 34 passes on 58 attempts for 721 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Hornets, however, hang their hat with the ground-and-pound attack — despite facing eight or even nine-man boxes all year.
Sullivan and Gardner were named Division V first team and third team all-Ohio running backs respectively, while the leading linemen are first-teamer Mike Alfieri (6-0, 225, Sr.) and second-teamer Kristian Grman (5-7, 201, Jr.).
“They definitely love to run the football. They are comfortable with taking three or four or five yards and just chewing up the clock and playing real good defense,” said Pendleton. “They run double-wing or stacked-I, and they do a lot of gap-schemes where they down-block a lot. They like to run some tosses too, but they pin and pull on those.”
Pendleton said scheme-wise the Hornets are similar to Chesapeake, but Kirtland is also similar to Ironton “in a lot of regards”.
“They are not overly big, but they have a lot of kids that are scrappy and get after it,” he said. “They are quick and athletic, and a lot of their kids wrestle, so they are going to be strong kids. You can tell in their bodies and physiques and the way that they move that’s the type of kids that they are. It’s not the biggest line we’ve seen, but we haven’t been the biggest line in every game this year either. When you get to this level, there’s no surprises. You are going to be playing teams that are physical, take care of the football and tackle well. You’re playing a good football team no matter what.”
The Fighting Tigers have definitely taken on a run-first identity throughout the playoffs, having rushed for at least 45 times and at least 270 yards in each of the last three games.
They attempted 57 rushes against Amanda-Clearcreek, while amassing 403 rushing yards against West Jefferson.
Reid Carrico, of course, has been the 1,545-yard featured back — going off for 234 yards on 18 carries in the state semifinal, two of which were touchdown runs of 70 and 72 yards.
Carrico has carried 179 times and scored 25 touchdowns, and is also the leading receiver with 17 receptions for 372 yards and four scores.
Both Ironton and Kirtland’s defenses are two of the best in the entire state, as the Hornets have allowed just 86 points all season — an average of just six which includes seven regular-season shutouts.
Pendleton said the Hornets show several defensive fronts — from five-men to four-men to three-men “with a 30-stack look”.
“They give you a lot of looks and bring a lot of different pressures. But our guys have handled a lot of different fronts this year. I mean I think we’ve faced about every front you can imagine,” said the coach. “We’ve been able to adjust and handle it pretty well, and our depth up front helps us. We go about seven or eight guys deep, and we’re able to wear on teams and our guys are in really good shape. They love to assert themselves and grind out a game and take over a game late.”
Ironton, on the other hand, has had only four games all season in which its talented and highly-touted first-team unit has allowed more than one touchdown.
One was at Ashland, with two others occurring against Ridgewood and West Jefferson, as the Tigers have given up just 104 points all year.
The Hornets had four defensive players named to the Division V all-Ohio top three teams — first-team linebacker Kaleb Stephenson (6-3, 165, Sr.), second-team lineman Mike Rus (5-9, 165, Sr.), second-team linebacker Louie Loncar (5-11, 200, Sr.) and third-team defensive back Joey Grazia (5-10, 155, Sr.).
The Fighting Tigers’ defense is anchored by the six-foot, three-inch, 225-pound inside linebacker Carrico, who was named on Monday as the all-Ohio Division V Defensive Player of the Year.
Joining him are first-team lineman Seth Fosson (6-1, 235, Sr.), third-team lineman Junior Jones (6-0, 240, Sr.) and defensive back Gage Salyers (6-1, 205, Sr.), who actually made the all-Ohio squad as a second-team quarterback.
For old-school football enthusiasts, and on an anticipated cold night in Canton, it’s the perfect formula for winning a championship — run the football and play outstanding defense.
Ironton, in fact, has not allowed more than 21 points in any game all season — and it might take the first team to hit 21 to be the winner.
If Ironton lacks an advantage, it’s obviously the lack of experience — compared to Kirtland — of even playing, let alone winning, beyond the regional quarterfinals in the past decade-plus.
The regional championship was Ironton’s initial appearance of playing in the Elite Eight since 2009 and 2010, as the Hornets are playing in their eighth state final in the past nine years — with only 2016 ending up as regional runner-up.
Since the start of the 2006 season, only in 2009 did the Hornets fail to make the playoffs, as they were regional runners-up in 2008 and 2010 — prior to their only Division V state championship and runner-up effort in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Still, what matters is what happens on Saturday night — from field position to turnovers and penalties and overall execution.
“It’s a matter of what we can take care of. If we can come out and play the best football game that we can play, we’re going to be just fine,” said Pendleton. “You’re dealing with two very good football teams that are playing at very high levels. We’ve faced good teams all year, and our kids have just been comfortable in these big games and environments all year.”
Now, it’s up to the Fighting Tigers to save their best for last.
An Ironton triumph would mean a second Division V state championship for the Southeast District in the past three seasons, as Wheelersburg won it all two years ago — defeating Pemberville Eastwood 21-14 in overtime to capture that crown.
“We’re going to leave it all out there. You go home as a champion or a runner-up. Anything that we have at our disposal, we’re going to use,” said Pendleton. “We’re going to play 48 minutes of extremely hard and disciplined football. We have a great group of kids that have done everything we’ve asked of them. It’s great to see them reap the benefits of that. It’s going to be hard, win or lose on Saturday night, to see it end. Hopefully, we make more plays and score more points than Kirtland does and can bring home a gold championship trophy.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved