WHEELERSBURG — Rob Woodward, with this season completing his second decade with Wheelersburg’s powerhouse football program, knows — no matter the year and for better or worse — that the Pirates’ annual opening game against Ironton is always an extreme challenge.
But, on paper, perhaps the Pirates have never seemed — in even objective observers’ eyes anyway — this noteworthy of an underdog to the Fighting Tigers.
However, maybe that’s a rare role Wheelersburg embraces — as the new-look Pirates open their new season on Friday night at Ironton, as the talented, highly-touted and even heavily-favored Fighting Tigers are returning as back-to-back Region 19 champions and two-time defending Division V state runners-up.
The Pirates and Fighting Tigers renew their annual opening-week rivalry, as this marks the 32nd meeting between two of Ohio’s most tradition-rich, storied and proud programs.
As per usual every August, or at least every season sans last year since 1998, the Wheelersburg and Ironton contest is THE marquee matchup in all of the entire Southeast District.
Kickoff is set for Friday night at 7 p.m., inside historic — and what should be electric — Tanks Memorial Stadium in Ironton.
Of course, last season’s scheduled meeting at Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg was canceled because of the coronavirus situation —as Ironton owns an 18-13 advantage in the all-time series, thanks to snapping an astounding eight-game losing streak against the Pirates.
Wheelersburg, up until two years ago when the Fighting Tigers pulled away for a 30-6 runaway win, won every regular-season meeting against Ironton from 2013 thru 2018 —and tacked two state playoff wins on in back-to-back years by identical 38-7 scores (2014 regional semifinals and 2015 regional quarterfinals).
But, given the last two years, it seems like the Pirates’ half-decade of dominance over the Fighting Tigers was a long time ago.
The Pirates saw their streak snapped, would have been overwhelming underdogs entering last season’s game had it been played, and Ironton is coming off two consecutive trips to the state championship bout.
But Woodward, entering his 14th season as Wheelersburg’s head coach, is well-aware of the ringer which Ironton always presents.
“All 19 years I’ve been here, Ironton has been a challenge. Both teams are going to go out and give their best for sure. That week one always shakes out in regards to who makes mistakes and who is playing the most sound football at that time. And we hope that we are,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work and set ourselves up and battle like we have in all 19 years that I’ve been here.”
Although this season, given back-to-back 19-man graduating senior classes, the Pirates field one of their more inexperienced clubs —at least entering the campaign.
This Wheelersburg senior class is 11 men strong, but Braxton Sammons — the Division V all-Ohio placekicker and punter —perhaps has more experience against Ironton than any other Pirate.
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 (95) and yards (890).
Both Lattimores are explosive threats for big gainers, or to even hit paydirt, each and every time they touch the football.
“They are both electric players. Derrick was our leading rusher last year, and Eric has really grown and developed in our offense. 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.”
Some sophomores and juniors which didn’t see a snap against Ironton two years ago are making their first career starts, as are the Fighting Tigers —which were also impacted heavily by graduation.
As for the fuel for those back-to-back state title tilts, Reid 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.
Especially after Trevor Carter, the 6-2 and 205-pound standout junior linebacker and running back, abruptly opted out of playing this season —citing a shoulder injury, per a recent report in The Huntington Herald-Dispatch.
The national college football recruiting website 247sports considers Carter — who has received 16 full scholarship offers from Football Bowl Subdivision programs — the fourth-best overall player in Ohio, the 10th-best linebacker in the country, and the 114th-best overall player nationally.
Carter left the Fighting Tigers in the opening week of camp, and was set to be the featured back with Carrico having graduated —as Carter carried 74 times for 561 yards last fall.
There is also widespread and strong speculation that Ironton’s six-foot, 190-pound junior quarterback Tayden Carpenter is out injured, as Carpenter is more of a pass-oriented QB — as opposed to a dual threat as a runner.
But regardless of which Fighting Tigers take the field for Friday night, fourth-year head coach Trevon Pendleton knows well what Wheelersburg brings to the table.
“Anytime you play Wheelersburg, you’re going to be playing a good football team that is very well-coached, athletic and disciplined. They are going to do things right and not beat themselves, so you have to come out and execute and play with great intensity,” said Pendleton. “Then you have to take advantage of opportunities and capitalize on those when they arise.”
Given the contrast in offensive styles with Wheelersburg’s spread-the-field formation mixed in with a power running attack, Pendleton prefers for his Fighting Tigers to play a game of keep-away.
The Pirates present elements always of athleticism and speed, and are traditionally a “touchdown from anywhere at anytime” type of team.
“You want to limit their possessions and definitely not give them extra possessions. Turning the ball over and losing that time of possession battle can be very critical. We definitely want to win those two areas. Anytime you can hang onto the football, take the air out of the ball a little bit, keep their offense on the sidelines, that’s what we want to do. They’ve historically been a quick-strike offense, so anytime that offense is sitting on the sideline, you’re feeling pretty good,” said Pendleton. “Our style is pretty physical and we try to wear on people. So anytime we can maximize our possessions, we are pretty happy.”
And, the Fighting Tigers are elated the matchup returns this season, as the winner will quickly fill up its proverbial bag of coveted computer points.
“This is a game at Ironton we always have circled. These kids love it, and probably would play them every Friday if we could,” said Pendleton. “They enjoy it, we enjoy it as a coaching staff, and it’s definitely something we’re looking forward to.”
But the Pirates, playing the underdog role, look forward to the opportunity as well.
“This game is always going to be a tough game, but we want to challenge our kids,” said Woodward.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved