IRONTON —Once might be an accident, but the second is a trend —and the past two football seasons beg the question of the Ironton Fighting Tigers.
Indeed, what will Ironton do for an encore —following back-to-back Division V state runner-up finishes?
Well, actually, come to think of it, there’s only one thing left to do.
That is, of course, win it all.
And, for the Fighting Tigers, the hunger is there —but so are the great expectations that are once again cast over this truly tradition-rich and proud program.
Even as Ironton’s Reid Carrico, the first football player hailing from the Southeast District to EVER win BOTH Offensive (running back) AND Defensive (linebacker) district Player of the Year, graduates —fourth-year head coach Trevon Pendleton preaches that the ultimate team goal never changes.
Doesn’t matter who, or even how many, moves on.
The drive for, desire towards, devotion to and mainly motivation for a third state championship in school history remains intact.
“I think anytime you get so close to your goals, but come up a little short, it just hungers you and drives you,” said Pendleton, during the Fighting Tigers’ media day activities. “Our kids have demonstrated that. We’ve had great numbers in the weight room all year, great numbers through camp, great energy, lot of guys stepping up, lot of guys taking charge. I think it’s definitely a fueling factor.”
After winning its 13th all-time regional championship, Ironton won its 10th all-time state semifinal for its 11th win in as many games last season —and faced Kirtland for the second consecutive appearance in the state title tilt.
In the end, Ironton ends up as state runner-up for the second straight year — and for the eighth time (1973, 1982, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1999, 2019, 2020) in program history.
As for the fuel for those back-to-back bouts, Carrico —the two-time Ohio Division V Defensive Player of the Year and last season’s runner-up for the prestigious Ohio Mr. Football award — provided plenty for the Fighting Tigers’ trips.
He signed with Ohio State University in December on a full ride scholarship to play for the Buckeyes —becoming the first player from the Southeast District to finish in the top two in Mr. Football voting AND sign with Ohio State in the same season since Athens’ Joe Burrow in 2014.
However, Carrico wasn’t the only significant graduation loss.
The Fighting Tigers also said goodbye to the following first-team all-Southeast District players: Gunnar Crawford (DL), Dalton Crabtree (DL), Cameron Deere (LB), Kyle Howell (DB), Trent Hacker (WR), Matt Davis (OL), Rocky White (OL) and Jimmy Mahlmeister (PK).
Both sides of the football took their fair share of hits, but perhaps Ironton’s defense did suffer more.
“Linebacker and secondary, you’ve got to replace a lot of guys with a lot of experience and a lot of guys who played a lot of football for us,” said Pendleton.
While that’s true, these Fighting Tigers are not short of talent.
As for how much football Ironton has played in two years?
With five postseason games in 2019, followed by a half-dozen more in last season’s coronavirus-impacted year, that’s an entire extra season’s worth of practices and games.
“Anytime your kids are getting to play extra games and getting extra weeks of practice, it’s just that much more experience and goes a long way. Our kids are getting different looks, whether it’s on the scout team or running reps with the first teams every week throughout the playoffs. Seeing different styles of defenses and offenses. It gets your kids ready for what they are going to see in the years to come and it’s definitely an advantage,” praised Pendleton. “This year, I definitely think we’ve got guys who are capable and guys who are talented. The guys who have played football for us have to do it more regularly, and they have to be prepared to do it for four quarters of battle and hopefully 16 games this year.”
As for replacing Carrico and Deere, the linebacking corps consists of seniors Angelo Washington and Jacob Sloan, juniors DeAngelo Weekly and Lincoln Barnes, and sophomore Noah Patterson.
Up front, the stalwart defensive line includes six-foot and 300-pound Nate Cochran and his 50 tackles —along with 6-2 and 245-pound end Ashton Duncan, who is already a Miami University commit.
Both are seniors, and both were named all-district Honorable Mention a season ago, as Cochran collected four quarterback sacks and Duncan three.
Ironton’s defense is one of the best in the entire state against the run, and is expected to be again this year.
Landon Wilson, a junior cornerback, is the only returning starter in the secondary —as Aaron Masters and Jon Wylie will likely be the starters as safeties.
“Our defensive style allows us to pin our ears back and play pretty aggressive,” said Pendleton.
Offensively, the Fighting Tigers attacked on the ground with Carrico and even Trevor Carter —and through the air with six-foot, 190-pound junior quarterback Tayden Carpenter.
Carrico amassed 1,544 yards and 25 touchdowns while averaging 9.4 yards per carry, collecting seven 100-yard rushing games as Ironton played exactly a dozen.
This season, look for juniors Jaquez Keyes and Terrell Mize and senior Amar Howard handling the ball —as Duncan can play both tight end and fullback.
But with Carpenter completing 79-of-134 passes for 1,331 yards and 19 touchdowns against only six interceptions last season, likely look for the Fighting Tigers to open up the playbook a bit.
Hacker had 18 catches for 405 yards and four touchdowns as the Fighting Tigers’ top receiver, as Masters —moved to wideout after playing quarterback for Wheelersburg as a sophomore —made 10 receptions for 231 yards with three scores.
Ironton also gained Valley transfer Ty Perkins (6-3, 185, jr.), a first-team all-district wide receiver to go along with Masters, Wilson, Duncan and Sloan.
“Tayden (Carpenter) has played a lot of football for us, and we have some receivers back who are going to step up who have been waiting their turn. They’re ready for their opportunity,” said Pendleton. “Offensively, we’re doing some new things this year, and I think it looks really good and our guys seem to be enjoying it. It’s been very competitive throughout camp and I think it’s going to be very competitive going forward. We have multi-year starters on the offensive line, and we have young guys who are really talented and getting in the mix there.”
Speaking of which, the Tigers return their pair of three-year starting tackles —senior Ryan Cecil on the right and senior Riley Boggs on the left.
Another senior, C.J. McCall, is a two-year starter and is being moved from guard to center —as Cochran comes back at the left guard with Patterson playing on the right side.
Duncan — in addition to his run-blocking, pass-catching and all-around defensive playmaking — is expected to be the primary punter.
In the placekicking department, one Ironton St. Joseph soccer standout replaces another —with senior Matt Sheridan stepping in and taking over for Mahlmeister.
“We’ve been working hard with our kickers all summer. Matt Sheridan is a first-year kid, but he has a very strong leg, very consistent, very accurate. We’ve really excited. We think he’s going to have a great year,” said Pendleton. “Jimmy (Mahlmeister) has worked a lot with him. Jimmy was such a vital piece of that run last year and Avery (Book) the year before. People don’t realize how important they were.”
Especially in the playoffs, and against Region 19 strongholds Ridgewood, Wheelersburg and now Harvest Prep.
As Ironton aims for a third consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championship, their three non-league foes —archrival Wheelersburg, Division III southeast Ohio power Jackson and Division I and even state powerhouse Cincinnati Moeller — force the Fighting Tigers to truly be at their best.
But, per Pendleton, his charges welcome the highly-challenging — and even overly-brutal — schedule.
“We tell our kids anyone, anytime and anywhere. And we truly mean that,” said the coach. “We want our kids to compete and be battle-tested. Our goal is just to chip away at it and go 1-0 every week.”
And, if Ironton indeed does that for 15 weeks, it will play for another Division V state championship in early December.
The hunger, and great expectations, are still there.
“We’re going to show up every day, work hard, control what we can control, and take care of what we can take care of,” said Pendleton. “This team does a very good job of that.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved