WHEELERSBURG — It’s no secret that Wheelersburg wants revenge.
After all, the Pirates play the team on Saturday night which eliminated them from the Division V Region 19 state playoffs —and snapped their streak of appearing in six consecutive regional championship games.
But, the Pirates are always about playoff football —so the bigger picture, even more so than simple singular vengeance, is about winning the next matchup and advancing onward.
On an expected chilly Saturday night, and despite venturing a long way from home, third-seeded and 7-1 Wheelersburg will aim for the best of both worlds —when the Pirates play the second-seeded, undefeated and familiar foe Ridgewood Generals in a Region 19 semifinal.
Kickoff time is set for 7 p.m. at Ridgewood High School, with the winner advancing to the Region 19 championship tilt — which Wheelersburg would be playing in for the seventh time in eight years.
However, the Pirates are making their longest trip ever to get there — as Ridgewood, an East District member and located in West Lafayette, is an estimated three-and-a-half hours away from Wheelersburg.
But, if you poll these Pirates, they will play anywhere —and play anyone — as long as they are still playing past Halloween.
“Our guys work so hard all year to get a chance to play in the playoffs every year. Playoff football is what they look forward to,” said Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward, in an interview on Tuesday. “Our community really rallies around our guys competing every year in the playoffs. We’re excited about continuing to go on and keeping the dream alive and playing the best that we can in every aspect that we can. Home field advantage has become a huge thing during this COVID-19 time, but our guys just like a 100-yard green field. They have done great all year of generating the motivation they need to play at a high level.”
As for motivation this week, it won’t take much for the Pirates.
The 8-0 Generals, also undefeated (11-0) entering last season’s semifinal at Lancaster, defeated Wheelersburg 42-17 —as quarterback Gabe Tingle spearheaded Ridgewood’s revenge.
Prior to last season, the Pirates had won their first four meetings with Ridgewood — all in the playoffs and all occurring since the 2007 season.
“There’s been a bad taste in our mouth since last year’s game. So we’re extremely excited and ready for this opportunity,” said Woodward. “We have to drive up there and play on natural grass, but that’s the way the game was meant to be played. This is the first time we are traveling up there. You always want to be playing at home, but right now, the main thing that we’re pleased with is we’re still playing football. Aside from a road trip, we’re gonna get prepared and go out and play the best football we can.”
As for one last look back, Tingle — now a six-foot, 161-pound junior — was a great show on turf.
Tingle, the East District Division V Offensive Co-Player of the Year, torched the Pirates’ pass defense for four touchdowns and 288 yards on 15-of-22 passing — and paced the Generals in rushing with 93 yards and a 2-yard touchdown run on 16 carries.
In addition to Tingle, the Generals’ entire offensive front five returns —as well as a cornerback, free safety, wide receiver and running back which were all integral parts of last year’s 11-1 unit, which lost 24-14 against Ironton in the Region 19 championship.
“They are a very good football team that returns a number of guys. Their sophomore class was really good last year that are juniors this year, with Tingle being one of those. They were young last year, but they obviously gained a ton of experience and are bringing that back,” said Woodward, of Ridgewood. “They are playing at high level right now.”
The Generals are averaging 43 points per game, and while Tingle and the high-octane offense indeed grabs the headlines and highlights, Ridgewood’s defense is just as good.
They have allowed an average of seven points per game —giving up only one touchdown five times, including in their two playoff wins over Oak Hill (49-7) and Liberty Union (43-7).
“They are dominating defensively. I know a lot of credit goes to their offense, but they have a very good defense,” said Woodward. “They are very good up front and they fly around to the football.”
Speaking of flying, Tingle does that with his feet — and with his arm.
Woodward said from film, the standout signal-caller is more of a running threat this year, “but when they get ahead like they have, you end up running the clock.”
“The ability to run the clock is to run the football, but they are going to utilize what best suits him (Tingle) and leave it up to him. I’ve talked to (Ridgewood) Coach (John) Slusser, and he really lets Tingle do what he wants out there and he is a good enough athlete that he can. He improvises a lot of situations, he extends plays very well and he and his receivers have good connections,” said the coach. “We have to make sure we are covering the entire time and tackling very well.”
In last season’s matchup, Woodward admitted there were “a lot of breakdowns”.
Those same breakdowns —whether it be defensive assignments or coverages — can not happen again.
And, Woodward doesn’t believe they will.
“They threw the ball vertically down the field as far and as fast as I’ve seen any good team ever maybe do that. Their receivers were able to run under the ball and make some big catches. This year, communication has been a big thing for us,” he said. “We’ve gotten better with suring up some things and tried to simplify some things on defense to where are our kids are not thinking as much, they are just playing fast.”
But perhaps the Pirates’ best defense can be a ball control, clock-consuming, drive-crafting, run-oriented offense, which has become an identity this season — and best demonstrated itself in their 31-21 quarterfinal win over Ready.
“I think we’ve done a good job of establishing and recognizing who we are and who some of our players are that can be key role players for us this year,” said Woodward.
Indeed, he believes there is a big difference in the two seasons — and thus could be a bigger difference between the two games.
Most observers agree that these Pirates are better-equipped to not only compete against, but perhaps defeat the Generals in their own backyard.
Woodward said six starters on both sides of the ball return from last year’s affair.
But while Wheelersburg wants revenge, the Orange and Black’s greater goal is to play past Halloween.
“Everybody understands their roles way better,” said Woodward. “Our guys are going to be ready to play and we’re excited about the next opportunity in front of us.”
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