WHEELERSBURG — The colors of the Wheelersburg Pirates are always Orange and Black.
But, in indeed a rarity for the tradition-rich and long-proud Pirate program, this year’s Wheelersburg High School football team may even see some shade of “green”.
That’s correct, as one scans up and down the 72-man roster, these particular Pirates are overall inexperienced at the varsity level — as unusual as that may sound.
And, for the first time since a consecutive three-year stretch from 2011 thru 2013 and a four-of-five season-span from 2008 thru 2013, the Pirates are not the reigning Southern Ohio Conference Division II champions —nor are they even the prohibitive preseason favorite for that division title.
Although, as always, Wheelersburg’s expectations to compete for championships never ceases — no matter how difficult the schedule is either.
This season’s Pirates, playing one of their most challenging non-conference campaigns ever, are now the prime hunters in the SOC II — as now 14-year Wheelersburg head coach Rob Woodward, with an 11-man senior class, looks to lead the Pirates back atop the league and in Region 19 of Division V.
While some observers’ expectations for these Pirates —playing the non-league likes of Ironton and Jackson on the road sandwiched around three difficult home contests against Chillicothe, Ashland (Ky.) and Russell (Ky.) —may not be as high, Wheelersburg will count on EACH individual in order to accomplish its goals, no matter how much true star-power it has.
Aside from Ironton, the two-time defending Division V state runner-up, the other four from that aforementioned fivesome are all equivalents to Ohio’s Division III.
Ashland even won its state championship classification in Kentucky.
“Those first five games are all bigger schools, but we want to challenge our kids. Part of best-developing our kids is putting them through some challenging situations,” said Woodward. “If we take care of the things we need to, we have a schedule that sets us up very well for a spot in the expanded (16 teams per region) playoffs.”
The Pirates’ roster is stocked — and stacked — with underclassmen, ranging right around 20 for each of the lower three grades.
“We are really having to call on those underclassmen, juniors and sophomores, to step up and fill roles. We are green as a whole this year, a little greener and a younger team than what we have been,” said Woodward, who is completing his second full decade in the Pirate program. “Our theme this year is ‘Count On Me’. We have a smaller number of seniors, and they are recognizing that they have to count on some of those younger guys. Those younger guys are looking at those seniors to provide them with the leadership that they need. It’s really been a great offseason in terms of development. Right now, we’re taking it day by day and week by week in terms of how we train, work and develop our athletes. We’re trying to find the best positions for them to be successful and put them in situations where they can be successful, both individually and as a team.”
The past two Pirate clubs, which have advanced to the Region 19 semifinals before losing against Ridgewood including last season’s 13-10 defensive epic in West Lafayette — each graduated 19 seniors.
Four of those from last season — Matthew Miller, Ian Fannin, Jay Holsinger and Gage Adkins —are now playing college football, as Blake Richardson graduated as a Division V first-team all-Ohio offensive lineman and Miller made third-team all-Ohio as a wide receiver.
“We lost a good senior class, and we had some guys in that senior class that just loved the game and loved to work. They were major contributors to last year’s team, but they have also instilled a work ethic in these seniors now that are stepping up and looking to go out and write their own history,” said Woodward.
One of those is the team’s standout placekicker and punter Braxton Sammons, who was a third-team all-Ohio punter as a sophomore prior to capturing second-team all-Ohio as a placekicker as a junior.
In order to earn all-Ohio accolades, a player must first make first-team all-district.
Sammons, whether kicking or punting or as a speedy soccer forward, is simply solid.
He will once again handle all extra points, field goals and kickoffs.
“His (Sammons) kicking game has been outstanding, and he has continued to work and tried to develop on what he can do best in any one of those given situations,” said Woodward.
The Pirates’ other all-Ohio returnees are also seniors — Josh Clark (third-team) at defensive back and Carson Williams (Special Mention) at linebacker.
Other important skilled returnees include seniors Eli Swords (RB/DB) and Casey Doerr (WR/DB) and juniors Caleb Arthur (TE/OLB), Derrick Lattimore (RB/DL) and Eric Lattimore (WR/DB).
So some experience is indeed back, including Derrick Lattimore, the Pirates’ leading rusher a year ago in terms of both carries and yards.
“Some of our skilled position players are guys who were asked to step into roles defensively or offensively since they were sophomores. Some of them have more experience with this stage of playing at the varsity level,” said Woodward. “But we have some new guys in those roles, and they are just working to develop and grow and provide the best that they can. We’re counting a lot on these sophomores and juniors. A lot of guys have been working themselves, developing and just waiting their turns.”
Woodward reeled off a list of those Pirates —both up front and/or behind or on the lines of scrimmage.
They included seniors Drew Holsinger (OL/DL), Gabe Welch (OL/DL), Hunter Thomas (TE/OLB), Brock Brumfield (WR/DB) and Cole Frazier (TE/DL); juniors Ethan Glover (RB/LB), Joden Blackburn (OL/DL) and Caleb Miller (OL/DL); and sophomores Jake Darling (RB/DB) and Creed Warren (WR/DB).
Eli Jones, a junior who was last year’s junior varsity signal-caller, and sophomore Bryson Stamper are battling it out for the starting quarterback spot — as Jake Gregg was a senior all-district Honorable Mention selection while junior Kenny Sanderlin, who also excelled at linebacker, transferred to Portsmouth for other athletic endeavors.
The Pirates play multi-faceted football on both sides, featuring 4-2-5, 4-4 or 3-4 defensive looks while offensively spreading it out and packing it in and playing power when needed.
Despite the inexperience level, Woodward wants Wheelersburg players to still be strong and quick.
He believes these Pirates feature those qualities, thanks to accomplishing their goals from a near-normal off-season.
“We did a great job in the off-season of what were able to do. We’ve got some extremely fast, explosive, strong guys. In our weight room, we’ve shattered a number of our team records. Now they just have to get out there and clock time in varsity games and get the mental and physical understanding of what’s required of them,” said the coach. “We may not be the biggest guys, but we’re going to be guys that are just hungry and get after that, especially defensively. We’ve always been a swarming defense that is fast, aggressive, really flies to the football and always tackles well. We’re going to have linebackers and defensive linemen that are going to be athletic and really move.”
The Pirates, if they are to challenge defending division champion Waverly, will need to do that against the offensive-firepowered and highly-touted Tigers.
But, Wheelersburg — following its brutal non-league gauntlet — will be challenged itself in the SOC II.
“We’re always going to get everybody’s best game, especially in the league. But we have to make sure we’re ready for that each and every week,” said Woodward.
Even if the Orange and Black appears — on paper — perhaps more “green” than in years past.
“Our kids continue to line up and bring everything they can to the table every single day,” said Woodward. “That’s all I can ask for as a coach.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved