PORTSMOUTH — In fitting for a year in which the world was, is and continues to be turned upside-down, what was once played last is now being played first.
But, at least, it is being played at all.
Since Portsmouth High School’s entry into the Ohio Valley Conference beginning with the 2015 football season, the Trojans and archrival Ironton always engage in the regular-season finale.
However, this is 2020 remember, when the coronavirus threat has thrown — and continues to throw — the universe all out of whack.
A perfect example is Friday night’s now season opener between the Fighting Tigers and host Trojans —the second-oldest high school football rivalry in the entire state behind only Piqua and Troy.
With the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s Board of Directors decision to shorten the regular season to a minimum of six games, it forced Ironton and Portsmouth — and the remainder of the OVC —to only schedule league affairs.
This season’s OVC schedule features each team’s original week-five through week-10 opponents — although they are now flipped, so their initial week-10 tilt is now the season opener.
And, thus, here we are as Ironton — the talented, highly-touted and defending Division V state runners-up — tangles with the Trojans at 7 p.m. inside spectacular Trojan Coliseum.
It will also be the first contest competed following the offseason instillation of the new Fieldturf surface at the fine Portsmouth High School facility, although unfortunately — as has been widely-documented — there will be a limit on the number of spectators.
The two U.S. Route 52 rivals play for the Grashel Trophy, as Ironton —per longtime and legendary Ironton Tribune sports editor Jim Walker —leads the all-time series 60-57-8.
In addition, the only other instance in which the two played as the season opener was clear back in 1917 — a year before the most recent global pandemic prior to the current coronavirus, which was the Spanish Flu.
Both squads sport three-year head coaches, as the two have split their first two meetings —with Portsmouth winning 35-28 two years ago before the heavily-favored Fighting Tigers took it to the underdog Trojans last season 48-7.
Both have also qualified for the state playoffs the past two years.
Ironton is also the considerable favorite for this season’s outcome, as the tradition-rich Fighting Tigers have restored the roar of their proud program —having advanced all the way to the state championship tilt last season for the ninth time in school history.
The runner-up finish was their seventh all-time — and their first state title tilt since the controversial 16-14 loss against Sandusky Perkins in 1999.
This season, spearheaded by Ohio State signee and an early Ohio Mr. Football front-runner in running back/linebacker Reid Carrico, the Fighting Tigers’ ultimate mission is to finish the job —and bring home their third state championship trophy and first since 1989.
Ironton also won it all 10 years prior to that.
Besides Carrico, the Fighting Tigers —despite the significant graduation losses of five Division V all-Ohio selections — do have several returning starters.
Many made minor impacts in Ironton’s 13-2 campaign, although —of course — much more is expected out of them this season.
“Ironton is Division V state runner-up. I’ve said when people ask me, Ironton won the league last year, are state runners-up. They’re the team to beat,” said Portsmouth coach Bruce Kalb. “Definitely not a team we’re going to take lightly with the pieces they have coming back. They have Reid Carrico coming back and a lot of other players on their roster are getting a lot of attention for the next level. At the same time, we prepare, we take care of us and let the chips fall.”
The Fighting Tigers, with a massive roster of 70, are more than just a one-man show — and in fact it’s ‘next man up’.
“We always preach to our guys ‘next man up,’ so there’s going to be opportunities to fill some voids this year and we’ve got a lot of depth,” said Ironton coach Trevon Pendleton. That’s one thing I’ll say about this team. We’ve got a lot of depth. We’ve got a lot of guys who can step in and play those positions. Any time you’re replacing guys who are going on to play at the next level or who are all-state caliber players or played in the North/South game, that’s some big losses to replace. Our biggest thing is we got five extra weeks of practice with our younger guys who will be stepping into those roles and you can see that maturity and how much that helped.”
While those names and jersey numbers will eventually be mentioned early and often this season, the surname ‘Carrico’ carries the most weight with Ironton in terms of the statewide stage.
Recruited to Ohio State as a linebacker, Carrico — standing six-feet three-inches tall and weighing 225 pounds — amassed 168 tackles last season, including 18 for loss with three sacks and four lost fumbles.
He recovered three fumbles, intercepted a pass and scored two defensive touchdowns.
The first Ironton player to ever be selected to compete in the Under Armor All-American contest, Carrico has been named to numerous major watch lists — not just in the state but throughout the entire country.
Carrico carried the football last season for 1,590 yards on 191 attempts, scoring 28 touchdowns including seven in the Fighting Tigers’ five playoff bouts.
“Reid is obviously going to be a big part of what we do this year offensively and defensively, but the key this year, we’re going to look a little different offensively than last year just based on personnel,” said Pendleton.
The Trojans, on the other hand, look much different following their graduation of 14 seniors.
No longer running the football is Talyn Parker —the school’s all-time leading rusher and two-time first-team Division V all-Ohioan after earning Southeast District Division V Offensive Player of the Year.
Also graduated are all-district first-teamers Austin McKenzie (defensive lineman), Bryce Wallace (wide receiver) and Eric Purdy (defensive back), as Purdy was named second-team all-state.
“As we came into the offseason, we knew that we would have our work cut out for us getting some of our younger guys ready,” said Kalb. “We knew we might have to rely on some juniors who might be seeing varsity for the first time and some sophomores here or there. Certainly have a lot of holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but I feel the senior leadership that’s carried us this offseason is going to hopefully carry us for a pretty successful season.”
Among those senior leaders are tight end Michael Duncan, wide receiver Chris Duff, two-way linemen Hayden Yerardi and Rex Smith, and linebacker Christian Keys.
Keys, in fact, was a first-team all-district linebacker last season —while starting quarterback Drew Roe returns for his junior year after making all-district Special Mention.
Besides Duncan and Duff, another one of Roe’s top targets is junior wideout Dariyonne Bryant.
Pendleton said simply that his Fighting Tigers are not taking the younger Trojans lightly, and said “it’s honestly no different” playing Portsmouth as the opener as opposed to the closer.
“We’re glad to play them either way. It’s a rivalry game, and if you can’t get up for that one, then you need stay home,” he said. “Our kids understand that it’s a rivalry and it’s for a trophy and we take a lot of pride in that. I don’t care who we are playing, when we are playing or whe’re we are playing. We’re going to show up, prepare like we do for every week, and try to take care of business.”
As for this week, and for this upside-down year, the longstanding rivalry bout comes first instead of last.
Off the docket
With the revised and reduced regular-season schedule, there is one OVC opponent that will not be on each team’s slate — as original week-four foe Rock Hill is that squad for the Trojans.
For the Fighting Tigers, that is the normal week-three foe Fairland.
Newsome’s new home
Ironton — of all places — is the new coaching home for former Green head coach and Portsmouth assistant Ted Newsome.
Newsome now is an Ironton assistant, becoming the first former Trojan assistant to convert over to the Fighting Tigers.
He is expected to serve as the offensive coordinator, and will work primarily with Ironton’s offensive line.
Newsome is a PHS graduate who coached in his alma mater’s program for 14 years.
He also coached at West for one year, and spent six seasons as the head man at Green.
He guided the Bobcats, two years ago, to their first winning record (8-2) AND state playoff appearance (Division VII) since 1990 — winning Division VII Southeast District Coach of the Year honors in the process.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved