WHEELERSBURG — They say that the early birds get their worms.
For the Minford Falcons, in this oddball and out-of-whack football season, perhaps facing their longtime nemesis Wheelersburg Pirates THIS early is an advantage —unlike in any other ordinary year not named 2020.
Then again, it might not be, but the revised schedule is what it is — as the Falcons and Pirates play in week-two of this season, thanks to the Ohio High School Athletic Association Board of Directors’ decision to reduce the regular season to a minimum of six weeks.
Speaking of six weeks, Minford and Wheelersburg traditionally square off in the sixth week of the campaign —which is always the Southern Ohio Conference Division II opener, as it is this Friday night.
Minford coach Jesse Ruby, in an interview on Wednesday, said it’s strange to be playing the Pirates this early on the docket.
“Very much so, but they (Pirates) may be saying the same thing. Usually before we play, we have two scrimmages and five games. This year, it was one scrimmage and one game. It’s definitely different, it feels different,” said the coach. “It’s going to be interesting to see how both teams react to playing each other so soon.”
But truth be told, it really doesn’t matter when these two rivals meet up — for the hype, and inside track to the SOC II championship, is usually there.
It is again this week, as Wheelersburg —the six-time defending division champion with a 26-game league winning streak at stake — meets Minford for the third time in 11 months, as kickoff is set for 7 p.m. inside Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg.
While live-streaming options are indeed available, as per an Ohio Department of Health order, there will be a limitation on the number of spectators able to attend.
For the Pirates, all that means is fewer milk jugs as noisemakers, as Ed Miller Stadium is a distinct home field advantage —no matter how many fans are permitted.
“It’s a big league game for us, as well as Senior Night for our kids. We expect that same or even greater high level of enthusiasm and love of the game that we showed at Chillicothe, with as many people from ‘Pirate Nation’ as we can have there,” said Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward. “We’re super excited to be playing and playing at home this week, and against a very good Minford team.”
Incidentally, the Pirates’ previous home game was against the Falcons — a 28-23 victory in last year’s Division V Region 19 quarterfinals.
That contest followed the thrilling regular-season affair between the two at Minford, in which Wheelersburg won (21-20) with a stop on a Falcon two-point conversion try in overtime.
That triumph propelled the Pirates to another SOC II title — as against Valley in 2013 remains Wheelersburg’s last league loss.
For the Falcons, it was another excellent opportunity — or two — at exorcising some Wheelersburg demons gone missed.
The Pirates own a 59-6 all-time series advantage — with Minford’s most recent victory coming clear back in 2009.
Four of those wins have occurred since 2000 —when the Falcons (24-14 in regular season and 28-0 in playoffs) did to the Pirates what Wheelersburg did to Minford just last year.
That leaves, once again, another Minford senior class hungry to play the Pirates.
Ruby discussed the rivalry’s “intensity”, but emphasized the importance of limiting mental mistakes — and the Pirates’ playmaking ability.
“For a lot of guys who got a taste of the game last year, it’s intense. Every class that we have come through Minford is always very motivated to play Wheelersburg,” he said. “Way more intense in a conference game than a non-conference game. The teams that we play in our conference are extremely well-coached and you have to make sure you limit your mistakes. I’m hoping we can do that this week. You can’t make the mistakes against Wheelersburg that you could normally make against other teams and expect to win. We have to make sure we take care of the football, limit their big plays and take care of our responsibilities.”
In Wheelersburg’s 31-0 season-opening shutout at Chillicothe, its new offensive cast of characters struck for three touchdowns of over 30 yards —including a 32-yard run by Eric Lattimore, preceded by two passes to Matthew Miller from new quarterback Jake Gregg.
The first was a wide-open down-the-middle 42-yarder, followed by a 61-yarder a minute into the fourth quarter — in which Miller made moves to free himself from the sideline.
“Wheelersburg is really good at playing fast and scoring fast and from anywhere on the field. They also have a very good and solid offensive line that they can matriculate down the field in five or six-yard chunks at a time. But in a big game like this, you have to limit big explosive plays,” said Ruby. “With their speed and ability, they can score from anywhere.”
But so can the Falcons — as they did with their Division V all-Ohio senior connection of quarterback Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis and receiver Matthew Risner.
In their 26-25 victory over visiting Washington Court House, in which the Falcons made a key two-point defensive denial of their own, Vogelsong-Lewis —a third-team all-state signal-caller last year — connected with Risner 10 times for 243 yards.
They also accounted for all four Falcon touchdowns, the final of which was at the outset of the fourth quarter.
Risner’s first three TD receptions — of 17, 86 and 54 yards — helped the Falcons stake a 20-7 halftime lead.
Risner was also the Falcons’ leading rusher, carrying 14 times for 55 yards.
Vogelsong-Lewis completed 16-of-35 passes for 326 yards — and yes, the four touchdowns to his senior all-Ohio Falcon teammate.
Risner, a prototypical all-purpose performer, was a second-team all-Ohio defensive back last year —and arguably is Minford’s best pure athlete.
“They have a very talented quarterback in (Elijah) Vogelsong-Lewis and very talented receiver in (Matthew) Risner. They also have a couple of other skilled-position players we really have to account for,” said Woodward. “We were able to do a good job defensively against some very talented skilled guys there (at Chillicothe), and that’s going to lead into Minford, who is always very well-coached and disciplined and organized. They showed that last year with some of the things they were able to do.”
In addition to Risner’s receiving statistics, Devin Parker made three receptions for 40 yards, Drew Skaggs pulled in three for 37 yards, and Colin Parker and Ethan Conally each had one for 18 yards apiece.
Ruby wants that quartet to get more involved this week, with Wheelersburg likely to double-team Risner — and spy on the dual-threat Vogelsong-Lewis.
The coach also aims to feature freshman Jeffrey Pica more in the running attack.
However, the Falcons’ starting offensive line is all new — sans senior Seth Simpson (6-2, 250).
Although Minford’s spread offense is an upgrade from Chillicothe, so too is the Pirates’ particularly fast defense from Washington Court House.
In constantly swarming to the football and excelling in gang-tackling, Wheelersburg stymied the Cavaliers to 126 total yards, including only 64 rushing on 30 carries.
In the first half, the Pirates forced five consecutive Cavalier three-and-out possessions, which Wheelersburg converted into 21 second-period points.
They also forced three turnovers —the first of which was a Miller interception in Chillicothe territory, which set up the Pirates’ 33-yard field goal to get on the board.
Ruby said his inexperienced lines must continue to show improvement this week.
“We need to get the mistakes we’ve made up front taken care of. We only have one returning starter on the offensive line (Seth Simpson). We have a lot of new guys there and they are growing, and they improved a lot from our scrimmage (against Fairland) to last week against Washington Court House,” he said. “I am hoping we can take another step forward with those guys and get our run game going.”
The Falcons are also still playing catch-up — caused by a positive coronavirus case that forced the program’s shutdown in the first two weeks of August.
As a result, Minford only had 11 full practice days prior to welcoming Washington Court House.
But, the tradition-rich and proud Pirates play on a different level.
Therefore, Minford may benefit by facing Wheelersburg THIS early.
Then again, in line with the overriding — and overwhelming — theme of 2020: who really knows for sure.
“We’re improving, and we need to improve each and every day and every week,” said Ruby. “I think for the mistakes we made in the scrimmage, we improved upon those in the first game. We still had mistakes in the first game, so our focus is on remedying those and taking a step forward and getting better every week.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved