WHEELERSBURG — Didn’t we just see you all two weeks ago?
And, we did this exact same thing just two years back?
For the West Senators and the Wheelersburg Pirates, the answer to that question is indeed “yes” —so do stop now if you’ve played this record before.
Two years ago, by way of the Southern Ohio Conference Division II scheduling rotation AND as fate would have it, Wheelersburg traveled to West for the regular-season finale — then hosted the Senators for a Division V Region 19 quarterfinal tilt.
The end result was the same — a Wheelersburg win en route to the Pirates’ second consecutive appearance in the Division V state semifinals.
Now, fast forward two years —and rewind two weeks — the Pirates played and won at West’s “Rock”, a 28-0 shutout in fact to conclude the regular season.
And, well, here we are again as fate rears its head once more — as the 14th-seeded Senators return to third-seeded Wheelersburg for a Region 19 second-rout bout.
Only this time, the Pirates had a bye week as of one of the top eight Region 19 seeds —while West won 34-14 over visiting Chesapeake.
Hence, while some shall call it de ja vu, both the upstart and 4-3 Senators and playoff-proven and 5-1 Pirates consider it another opportunity to advance in the Region 19 playoffs.
Kickoff is set for 7 pm. on Saturday inside the always-electric Ed Miller Stadium — despite this season’s spectator limitations as set forth by the Ohio Department of Health.
“They (Pirates) have a great atmosphere and fan following over there. It’s going to be a limited crowd, but it’s still loud, it’s a much more closed-in stadium, and the crowd is right on top of you. It’s definitely an exciting place to play,” said West coach Ben Johnson, in an interview on Tuesday.
The question remains is will the results be the same?
Saturday’s matchup marks the fifth time inside the past two calendar years that the Senators and Pirates have faced each other —as Wheelersburg won all four of the previous encounters.
This season’s seniors were just sophomores two years back, but the focus is on the here and now —as Wheelersburg will once again be a considerable favorite for the victory.
It’s also the third straight season in which the Pirates are playing an SOC II member for their first playoff game — with West of course two years ago and Minford the regional quarterfinal foe last season.
“It’s an SOC team and both programs are always battling with one another. Two weeks ago, we were at their place. Now this week, we’re back at our place. Our guys are doing everything they can to prepare for this week’s game, and have another shot at playing at home (in regional quarterfinals),” said Wheelersburg coach Rod Woodward, in an interview on Tuesday. “And we love playing at home.”
There are two extra rounds of state playoffs this season, thanks to the Ohio High School Athletic Association allowing ALL football teams the opportunity to compete —should they so choose.
With that setup, and the playoff seeding conducted by coaches vote, the Pirates landed a first-round bye.
Woodward said his squad made good use of its weekend off —unheard of in October.
“It was an interesting time for us to just assess and self-reflect on what were some things that we need to go back and touch up on. Fundamentals, offense and defense. I thought we did a great job of that and our coaches put together some great practice plans for a great week of practice. We always focus on the physical and mental conditioning and the enhancement of that,” he said. “I really felt like we gave ourselves some recovery time, but yet some work that helped make us better moving forward.”
The Senators moved forward by rolling past Chesapeake, as Johnson said his squad demonstrated better balance on offense.
In addition, West’s run defense — which has given clubs fits including the Pirates —did its job again.
“We were able to stay balanced last week. We had struggled with our running game the last two regular-season games, so it was nice to get back on track there,” said Johnson. “We’re really proud of this team and this season so far. We have some good core older kids on the defensive and offensive lines that have been great leaders for us. Then it’s well-documented the younger guys who have stepped up and made plays at different times. Just proud of how hard this team has worked and really dedicated themselves and how we’ve continued to get better as the season has progressed.”
But one of those roadblocks was the Pirates, as Wheelersburg outgained West 385-91 — with 199 of its yards coming on the ground and the rest through the air.
Jake Gregg connected with wideout Matthew Miller for the game’s first score — a 29-yard toss with 8:38 left in the first period to put Wheelersburg ahead 7-0 following Braxton Sammons’ first of two made PATs.
Sammons then booted two second-quarter field goals — one from 28 yards out and another from 38, giving the Pirates a 13-0 lead at halftime.
Derrick Lattimore broke free for a 66-yard touchdown run with 11 minutes remaining, as Kenny Sanderlin —who converted the two-point conversion run on Lattimore’s long jaunt — scored from four yards himself seven minutes later.
While Woodward said the Pirates sputtered some offensively, the defense definitely did not.
The Senators, in addition to less than 100 yards of offense, only amounted three first downs.
“I thought our defense did a tremendous job, aside from two big plays. We did a great job of holding them when they got down inside the red zone once. We were aligned, and we recognized what we felt they were going to do in a given situation,” he said.
Johnson said the Senators hung with Wheelersburg, but didn’t convert opportunities early — and thus wore down late.
“Earlier in the game, we missed some offensive opportunities, and in a championship-style game like that or a game where you are playing a really good team like Wheelersburg, you have to take advantage of all of the opportunities that you get. Our kids have seen those opportunities that we had, so hopefully we can make those plays this time,” said the coach. “Defensively, for the most part, we really battled for about three-and-a-half quarters. We had a chance to get within one score about halfway through the second half. We had a first-and-goal, but we weren’t able to punch that in. That could have changed the complexion of things. Then I think they wore us down a little bit once we got into the fourth quarter, and they got those last two scores.”
The Pirates also converted some 3rd-down-and-long situations, something the Senators must improve against Wheelersburg’s multi-formation offense.
Look for the Pirates to also involve a deep stable of running backs.
“They throw a lot of formations and personnel packages at you and make you have to adjust. They’ll try to control tempo. They will give you a lot to handle. For the most part, I thought our guys did a great job of that the last time. Now they’ve had two weeks to prepare for us, so they’re probably going to come at us with something we haven’t seen yet. We just have to be ready to adjust on the fly,” said Johnson. “We have to get a better pass rush, we have to cover better on the back end, and just be able to get off the field on third downs.”
Wheelersburg will be attacking with its aggressive, ball-hawking and playmaking defense, as West — despite demonstrating balance — will have to perform better at generating a line surge.
Although, Woodward is aware of the Senators’ capabilities —and knowing adjustments are forthcoming.
“They are very balanced in what they do. (Quarterback Mitchell) Irwin has been throwing the ball just as much as he has been running it. From what I saw against Chesapeake, I was very impressed with their younger guys they had running the ball. We have to be ready for any one of those three guys to be back there and toting the football,” he said. “We have to recognize that we have to bring it with our blocking and tackling on both sides of the ball. And I’m sure West will be inspired to play us in the playoffs. They’ll make adjustments, so we have to be ready for the adjustments they will make. Coach (Ben) Johnson and his staff do a great job.”
The Senators, indeed, are eager at another chance.
“A lot of times, in high school football especially, you don’t get this opportunity. We felt like we played pretty well at times in that first matchup, and just missed some opportunities that could have made it a much closer game,” said Johnson. “If you’re judging by the seedings and the records and those things, then Wheelersburg would be the favored team. But we can’t worry about all that stuff. We just have to play our best game. This is a huge opportunity for us. Our kids have improved each week this entire season, and this is an another opportunity to go out and show that the hard work can pay off. We’re trying to make each day the best day we’ve had so far this season, so we can be ready to play our best game this Saturday.”
And for the Pirates, which reloaded this season following heavy graduation losses from last year, it’s another postseason —but still one with lofty expectations.
“Our guys have definitely played a lot in the postseason, but we still have a lot of sophomores that are seeing the field. We have a lot of young guys that have to make sure they recognize the level of preparation for a playoff game and the level of speed that we’ll continue to be presented with,” said Woodward. “But our guys have done a great job of bringing the energy that is needed throughout the entire year. And I have no doubt that they will do the same this week.”
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