IRONTON — They say to be careful for what you wish for — for indeed you just might get it.
Don’t tell that to the Ironton Fighting Tigers today, though.
That’s because, truth be told, Saturday’s Division V state championship football game is exactly what the Fighting Tigers had hoped for.
It’s the much-anticipated, and much-desired, rematch against the Kirtland Hornets, which topped the Fighting Tigers 17-7 a season ago in Canton — and prevented Ironton from its third all-time state championship.
But each state title tilt is different, and for the Fighting Tigers in their 10th all-time trip, Ironton aims for a different outcome in Stark County.
In the only rematch of last season’s state finals, the 11-0 Fighting Tigers take on the 10-0 Hornets —as kickoff is set for 1:15 p.m. inside immaculate Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon.
The game will be televised live by Spectrum News 1.
In fact, all of the Ohio High School Athletic Association state finals were set to be played this weekend at Fortress Obetz in south Columbus, but all six games got moved to Massillon — very close to Canton and home to the Massillon Washington Tigers.
That sudden change was announced on Thursday, as Franklin County — where Fortress Obetz resides — issued a stay-at-home advisory in response to its new Level 4 designation per the Ohio Public Health Advisory System.
With that 11th-hour — and dramatic-distance travel — shift, that means two more hours of drive time for the Fighting Tigers, and another close-to-home bout for the defending Division V state champions.
Still, it’s not about where, or when, or even how the top two Division V programs in the state the past two years got there.
For Ironton, and third-year head coach Trevon Pendleton, it’s all about who.
The entire 2020 season has been focused on getting back to this game, on this day, and against the powerhouse Hornets.
“I don’t even know if there is a word to describe it. This is what these kids have dreamed about and thought about for almost a full calendar year. Not just the opportunity to play for a state championship again, but also the opportunity to play Kirtland again,” said Pendleton, in his final weekly media interview of the season on Wednesday. “I’ve said since our staff has got here that we’re not going to shy away from anyone. When you talk about state championships in the smaller divisions right now, you talk about Marion Local, Coldwater and Kirtland. We get the chance to play Kirtland again, and put ourselves in that conversation.”
Kirtland — keep in mind — is back in the state finals for a ninth time —almost nine consecutive to be precise.
In a decade of pure dominance, the Hornets have won five state titles —in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2018 as a Division VI program, before bumping up to Division V last season.
The runner-ups include 2012, 2014 and 2017, as the Hornets have appeared in at least the regional championship game in every season since 2008 —sans 2009.
In fact, the Hornets have the longest current active winning streak in the entire state of ANY school — having won 40 consecutive contests dating back to the 2017 Division VI state championship game against Marion Local.
Kirtland also —for the second straight year — went back-to-back and wire-to-wire as the top-ranked team in the Division V Associated Press statewide poll.
The Fighting Tigers, as aforementioned, are playing in their 10th all-time state title bout, as they have been the runners-up seven times (1973, 1982, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1999, 2019)— the penultimate of which was the controversial 16-14 loss in 1999 to Sandusky Perkins.
They actually almost missed out on Saturday’s title try, needing to rally from a 19-13 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Cincinnati Roger Bacon 22-19 in last week’s state semifinal.
Pendleton said his Fighting Tigers’ experience from playing in all five tournament games last year, including the state final, made a difference in advancing again to this year’s.
“These kids are used to big games, and the stage isn’t going to overwhelm us,” said the coach.
As for what wrongs needed righted on Saturday, Pendleton continued by recounting the experience difference from last season’s affair.
“Last year, we were not shell-shocked that we were there by any means, but just the whole magnitude of the experience that goes into the state championship, I think it did affect us a little bit. At least the first quarter or first half,” said Pendleton. “But we settled down and played great football after that.”
Ironton fell behind 10-0 at halftime, and missed an excellent opportunity to score from inside the five-yard line before time ran out in the second quarter.
The Hornets hit the Fighting Tigers for a 47-yard pass play on the game’s opening snap —as Gage Sullivan made an acrobatic one-handed catch.
Just a minute and 33 seconds gone by, Kirtland was on the board —and led 17-0 before Ironton amounted its only score with a minute remaining in the third period.
And, that was a 77-yard touchdown pass from Gage Salyers to Jordan Grizzle —accounting for the Division V state championship game record for a TD reception.
The defensive-oriented Hornets held the Fighting Tigers to only 48 rushing yards on 28 attempts, including Reid Carrico only amounting 40 yards on 12 carries.
Carrico, the 2020 Southeast District Division V Defensive AND Offensive Player of the Year and consensus frontrunner for Ohio’s prestigious Mr. Football award, comes back for his final game on Saturday.
Carrico carries no fear of course, and that has been Pendleton’s message to his team the past week.
“The message is don’t blink. These kids, they know they deserve to be here (state championship game), and they’ve worked their tails off to be here and right back in this situation. Last year, we played a great game, but didn’t take advantage of some opportunities and ultimately fell short. From film of last year, we were so close so many times to popping one. They were able to capitalize on some opportunities and made some big plays,” he said. “That’s what you have to do in these games. Both teams return a lot of the same kids as last year, and they are obviously very good at what they do and are there for a reason. We just have to continue to be who we are and do what we do. We’re going to play hard, be physical at a high level, and play great defense.”
And, hopefully, not turn the ball over or commit many penalties.
Against Roger Bacon, all of the Spartans’ 19 points came off three Ironton lost fumbles.
The Fighting Tigers were also flagged 13 times for 124 yards.
“Can’t happen,” said Pendleton, pointedly, when asked about making mistakes against Kirtland. “They are a good football team and they take advantage of those. Mistakes can’t happen. They already, just by their scheme and the way they like to do things, limit their number of possessions. We can’t be turning the ball over and giving it right back to them. Ball security and winning the turnover battle is huge. We have to convert third downs and keep our offense on the field. Then on the flip side, we have to win third down and get their offense off the field. We need to take advantage of our opportunities and end every drive in a score. That’s just a matter of us executing.”
Indeed, as both teams are heavily defensive-minded, Ironton’s offensive execution against the Hornets’ hailed unit is likely going to be the matchup to watch.
The Fighting Tigers take a ball-control, clock-consuming, drive-crafting approach —and will need to do that at the ultimate level against the Hornets.
Plus, “we have to continue to play with great effort.”
“Against teams like this, you can’t have any lapse in effort. You can’t take one play off,” said Pendleton. “If we play with great effort, I think we will be fine.”
The finest moment, of course, would be if Ironton is able to hoist the gold championship trophy —and exact a measure of revenge.
Not to mention, snap the Hornets’ 40-game win streak —while sending Carrico and its seniors out on the highest possible of notes.
This is, after all, what the Fighting Tigers wished for — and now they have it.
“This year has just flown by and with a great group of kids like this, you never want to see your season end. But only one team is going to win that final game in the playoffs, and we have our shot to make that us. We hope we do that,” said Pendleton. “These seniors immediately bought into the program when we got here, and a lot of them started as sophomores. They bought into the program, they trusted the process, and they’ve put themselves in situations to be successful. It’s something special to be able to hoist a trophy two years in a row for your last game. This group on Saturday wants that trophy to be the gold one of course.”
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