WHEELERSBURG — For the Wheelersburg Pirates, so far, they have played singular phases of the game quite well in their three different victories.
Their defense in a 31-0 shutout at Chillicothe, their offense in a 42-28 shootout against Minford, and their special teams in a 52-7 chopping down of Oak Hill.
However, and as Wheelersburg head football coach Rob Woodward said in an interview on Wednesday, the Pirates have yet to play ALL three phases completely well TOGETHER for ONE single game.
“I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from all of our different phases,” he said. “It’s just putting all three phases together in a complete game that we need to do.”
Plus, likely more than any other matchup in recent memory, the Pirates must make the 3-in-1 math work on Friday night — in order to move to 4-0.
That’s because undefeated and six-time defending division champion Wheelersburg, with its 28-game Southern Ohio Conference Division II winning streak at stake, will travel to face the fast, talented, and the highly-touted Waverly Tigers —which by the way are also unbeaten.
And, truth be told, not only is this encounter for SOC II supremacy, but it’s indeed one of the most noteworthy games in the entire state this weekend.
For those which put stock in the Associated Press statewide polls, the Tigers are 10th in Division IV while Wheelersburg —trailing only defending Division V state champion Kirtland —was ranked second in the initial poll released on Monday.
Six sports writers across the state even voted the Pirates as the top-ranked Division V squad.
Not to mention, but throw in the outcome’s impact of the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s playoff seeding system for this season only — as a result of the reduced regular season to a minimum of six games.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at sparkling — and hopefully not rain-soaked — Raidiger Field in Waverly, as ordinarily this game would be easily sold out and feature a standing-room only crowd.
Unfortunately, though, due to the coronavirus threat and an Ohio Department of Health order in place, there will be a limitation on the number of spectators which can attend.
For fans which will be permitted in, and for those which purchase the live-stream, they can probably anticipate some points put up on the scoreboard.
While Wheelersburg — even with a new cast of Pirates — can strike and score from anywhere on the field at any time, it’s the Tigers’ fast-paced, spread-the-field, prolific pass-oriented offense garnering much of the pregame attention.
After storming back from a three-touchdown deficit to defeat Granville 36-35 in their opener’s final few seconds, the Tigers torched Portsmouth West with 49 first-half points en route to that 49-13 win — before routing young Valley 56-10.
Their offense is paced by senior three-year starter and all-Southeast District Division IV first-team quarterback Haydn’ Shanks, who is receiving some college offers — and has recovered quite well after playing on a torn ACL all of last season.
While already owning a strong arm — and with quality and tall wide receivers in six-foot five-inch junior Will Futhey, 6-3 junior Penn Morrison, 6-3 senior Phoenix Wolf and 6-3 tight end Zeke Brown — Shanks is showcasing some running ability as well.
His mobility was decreased, and his liability increased, last year — but not this one.
“Haydn’ has been able to run the ball a little bit. He had three rushing touchdowns in the Granville game, which is something we couldn’t have done last year. Being able to run the ball is another dynamic for him,” said Waverly coach Chris Crabtree.
Futhey is the top target — a third-team Division IV all-Ohio wideout last season.
The Tigers’ line is also a large and experienced one —with four of the five interior starters being seniors, and with at least four of them standing six-feet tall and weighing 270 pounds.
“Waverly definitely poses some threats to us that we have to account for. We’re going to need our offense and our special teams to help alleviate some of that pressure on our defense. Because I feel Waverly’s best attributes is the offensive weapons that they have,” said Woodward. “They’ve always played fast, Futhey is an exceptional receiver who really goes up and after the football and plays well with his body, and Wolf is another one who is elusive and makes things happen in space. Shanks has been at the helm for three years now and has more foot speed with his knee healed up. And the offensive line is big at 330, 330, 300 and 270. They’ve really put together what’s needed to run the style of offense that they have. It’s an RPO (run-pass option) that is fast-paced and tries to get the ball out in space. Yet they still work to keep teams honest with an ability to run the ball within that interior.”
Woodward went on to emphasize the importance of his Pirates playing their defensive alignments and assignments exceptionally well —along with tackling the Tigers.
“We need to execute defensively. We’ve got a great gameplan put together. Communication is going to be important, along with our alignment and assignment football. We need to do those things, and play at a fast pace and be aggressive ourselves on defense,” he said. “We have to come out, set the tone early on, and be the ones playing physical and downhill. We can’t control their side of course, but our defense has to play with that explosive, ‘get-after you’ attitude that we always pride ourselves in. We like to play that high-speed, high-intensity, very physical type of game.”
Part of that physicality is forcing Tiger turnovers, which Waverly has hurt itself with in recent meetings, particularly last season in Wheelersburg’s 42-28 triumph.
Crabtree said that ball security is a top priority against the heat-seeking Pirates.
“They’ve (Pirates) always been a team that has caused turnovers and capitalized on mistakes. We can’t make mistakes or be turning the ball over,” he said. “The last couple of years, we’ve had a turnover in the first few plays that sets the tone. It’s just something we can’t do.”
Because the Pirates, like the Tigers, play fast or at least try to —and can score on big plays like Waverly.
This season, Wheelersburg has relied on multiple ballcarriers, sometimes seven to 10 per game, while quarterback Jake Gregg has managed the games well — distributing the pigskin to his receivers downfield or the backs out of the backfield.
Woodward said offensive coordinator and assistant coach Tom Kaskey’s play-calling “keeps defenses on their heels”, and “alleviates the pressure defensively”.
“From our perspective, we have had a lot of guys step up and make some big plays and show some promise. It’s continuing to allow us to recognize what we can do as a program and a team with the personnel that we have and best utilize them in situations,” said the coach.
Matthew Miller, moved to wide receiver with Gregg as the starter, has at least 13 receptions through three games —catching six in the opener for 141 yards and five more for 58 yards against Minford.
He has five receiving touchdowns on the season.
Crabtree compared and contrasted this new-look Pirate club from some of the recent past.
“Wheelersburg is always going to be well-coached, disciplined and they know how to win in tough situations. You have to know you are going to be in a dogfight and you have to play your best. They’ve graduated some people and some of the names that have been there for several years and have had success aren’t there, so there are some new faces,” he said. “This year, they (Pirates) are really intent on running the football. Then they are going to take their shots to the Miller kid when they have a chance to. We have to keep an eye on him, they like to throw screens as well with him. The quarterback (Gregg) does a good job of moving around the pocket and finding people. They have multiple backs who can run the ball, and they have several good skilled athletes. They are probably going to find a rhythm with whomever has the hot hand. And their line is all seniors. They are big and experienced up there.”
Waverly, of course, wants its offense to be its best defense —and be on the field for as much as possible.
“We have to be able to manage the run and get off the field defensively,” said Crabtree. “We have to give our offense opportunities to score. Wheelersburg is good at getting out on people and jumping on a lead early. They have multiple formations, they get some heavy packages and then they start eating the clock. Then they try to take it at you physically. We have to get off blocks, make plays against their running game. But if we go out and execute and do the things like we have been doing, I like our chances of our offense going out and putting points up.”
And, enough Tiger points will topple the Pirates in the SOC II for the first time in seven seasons.
“We talk about being 1-0 each week. Now we have to get this one to get one step closer to winning a league title, which is something we haven’t done here for a long time,” said Crabtree.
In fact, it’s been since 2006 — when Waverly went undefeated — that the Tigers last defeated the Pirates.
But, it’s a different season, although Wheelersburg’s propensity for the high-stakes, greater-impact games is still the same.
“Our guys exceed my expectations with the type of energy they bring and play with. I know they are going to bring the energy again Friday night, given the magnitude. There’s a lot hanging in the balance with this game, but we have a tendency to force teams to play their best games against us. Teams circle us on the schedule for just that. But our guys are ready and are preparing in the right kind of mindset,” said Woodward. “We practice at a very high intensity level, we ask a lot of our players, and they respond extremely well. Our coaches really push them throughout the week, so they’ve been placed in these pressure situations and challenged in a lot of different ways to help prepare them for this game.”
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