IRONTON — Truth be told, the Ironton Fighting Tigers are holding all the cards.
Now, in order for another November to remember —and for the Fighting Tigers to play for two more weeks beyond Saturday —the key is playing them correctly.
Those hands start against the visiting Ridgewood Generals, as the top two seeds — for the second consecutive season — square off in the Division V Region 19 championship game, which takes place this year inside Ironton’s historic Tanks Memorial Stadium.
Kickoff in Ironton is set for 7 p.m., as — this time for added measure —both the Generals and Fighting Tigers tangle with undefeated 9-0 records.
Last season in the Region 19 final, the top-seeded Fighting Tigers topped the Generals 24-14 at Nelsonville-York’s Boston Field —en route to their state runner-up appearance.
Not much has changed since, as both clubs are indeed very good, although Ironton —which trailed only defending Division V state champion Kirtland in all of the Associated Press statewide polls —is observed by many as playing on another level right now.
The Fighting Tigers’ defense is especially good, having pitched three shutouts and not allowing any more than 14 points in any one game —which occurred last week in a brutally physical contest against fifth-seeded Harvest Prep.
The Fighting Tigers prevailed 21-14, which was likely a good test for head coach Trevon Pendleton’s charges, given how easily Ironton amassed its initial eight victories.
“It was a slugfest with Harvest Prep. Very physical game. Hats off to them and they did a lot of things well enough to win the game. It was a testament to our kids that they just found a way,” said Pendleton, in an interview on Tuesday. “We always talk about that it might not be pretty, but it’s always finding a way to get something done. When you talk about something like that and preach it so often, it makes you feel really good for your kids. A lot of things have happened this year, a lot of injuries and so forth, where we’ve had to play a lot of kids, but those kids have stepped up for us and played phenomenal football.”
Speaking of phenomenal, while Ironton’s top two-way All-American and probable Mr. Ohio Football frontrunner Reid Carrico will play on Saturday night, it is unfortunate but believed that Ridgewood all-Ohio quarterback Gabe Tingle may not.
That’s because Tingle —last season’s East District Division V Co-Offensive Player of the Year who was enjoying another outstanding junior season — suffered a collarbone injury on the fifth play in the Generals’ 13-10 regional semifinal win over Wheelersburg.
Tingle missed most of the remainder of the first half, and when he did return with less than two minutes left in the second quarter, it was to hand the ball off.
In the second half, Tingle primarily handed off and rotated with backup Javan Belt, but did burn the Pirates with two pass completions that easily arguably were the difference in the game.
Early in the fourth quarter, he connected with a wide open Kurtis Varian for a 35-yard gain to the Wheelersburg 15-yard line —then shot-putted a pass to Deontae Brandon for a 14-yard touchdown with eight minutes remaining.
That made it 13-3, and the Ridgewood defense — which averages only allowing seven points per game — prevented the Pirates from either tying or taking the lead on their final drive.
While the Generals’ defense is indeed stout, having not allowed more than one touchdown in a single game, having Tingle at the controls means the world to Ridgewood.
With him under center, or rather in the shotgun, Ridgewood was averaging 43 points per game prior to last week.
Tingle is the Generals’ leading passer and rusher, totaling 2,272 yards with 32 touchdowns —while seldom seeing the field for fourth-quarter competition.
As of Friday, he is still considered a game-time decision —but there is trending tremendous doubt.
Still, Pendleton probably plans as if Tingle will play —and is working on not just one but two defensive gameplans.
“First and foremost, you never want to see a kid get injured. We definitely want to see him play. We want to play everyone and play everyone healthy. He is a very explosive football player who makes big plays,” said the coach. “The biggest difference in him from last year to this year is that he is looking to run the ball more. Whether it is a designed run or things breaking down, and that makes him more dangerous.”
The Generals do return several from last season’s regional final, especially up front with their five interior linemen.
“They are a very good football team. No doubt about that,” said Pendleton. “Their line is very impressive. They get good movement off the ball and they are very physical. They try to control the line of scrimmage on both sides. In the secondary, they return a lot of their skill guys from last year, and they make a lot of big plays and capitalize when needed.”
Tingle or not, look for his supporting cast to play much larger roles, beginning with Brandon in the backfield.
He carried 17 times for 77 yards last week against Wheelersburg, as he and Tingle have combined for 1,171 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Pendleton said his Fighting Tigers, no matter whether it’s Tingle or Brandon or Belt or whomever else, must keep up the ferocity and physicality with which their defense plays.
“We’ve been able to have success against that style of teams. Even going back to this game against Tingle last year, just the pressure our defense puts on. We have a lot of team speed on defense and guys are definitely flying to the football,” he said. “They are playing with great discipline, but on the edge of being really reckless. We need to confine them into areas where we can leverage and get multiple hats to the football, but when they get out in space, you have to get them on the ground. We’re repping open-field tackling every day in practice. But ultimately, our greatest defensive strength is just our team speed and our all-out effort.”
Speaking of effort, look for the Fighting Tigers seniors to give one last excellent one at “The Tank”.
With the Ohio High School Athletic Association allowing the higher-seeded teams the opportunity to host this year’s regional championship matchups, the Fighting Tigers have the overwhelming advantage of impressive and tradition-rich Tanks Memorial Stadium.
While Wheelersburg made the three-and-a-half hour drive to Ridgewood last week, it’s the Generals’ turn to make that almost four-hour trek to Ironton on Saturday.
“Anytime you get to play in a familiar setting such as this (Tanks Memorial Stadium), it gives your kids a big advantage and a sense of security. And you’re playing in front of your hometown, so your sense of community and pride is still intact,” said Pendleton. “It’s definitely nice when you look up and see the familiar backdrop of the covered home stands here at ‘The Tank’. I think that makes our kids feel comfortable.”
Indeed, the Fighting Tigers are holding all the cards.
Now, to make it another November to remember, it’s all about playing them right.
“We can’t wait,” said Pendleton. “These kids love to play in big games and have big-time moments. Weeks like this, the energy level is through the roof.”
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Sam Blackburn of Gannett Ohio, which includes The Coshocton Tribune, contributed to this report
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