WHEELERSBURG — While Wheelersburg’s Pirates play always for Southern Ohio Conference Division II championships, and for football victories in general, revenge is usually not included in that package.
But, Friday night’s Homecoming and colossal contest against the undefeated Waverly Tigers is not your normal run-of-the-mill matchup.
That’s because, in addition to playing for front-of-the-line positioning in the SOC II championship race —along with a playoff points pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow — the Pirates, with long memories, plan to pay back the Tigers this week.
This time, the highly-discussed and dissected and much-anticipated showdown takes place inside absolutely electric Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg —where Waverly hasn’t won in exactly 20 years.
The Tigers are proud of and are defending their SOC II title, while Wheelersburg wants it back —as the Pirates saw their streaks of six consecutive conference trophies and 28 straight league wins end with Waverly’s throwback two-point conversion pass a season ago.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on Friday night, as the now hunted and not the hunter Tigers prowl a perfect 6-0 mark —while the Pirates have won back-to-back games to improve to 4-3.
Both are 2-0 in the SOC II, and once again —like the past few falls —the winner will be the heavy-money favorite to march on and capture the conference crown.
The Tigers are the defending division champions for the first time since their undefeated and league championship season of a decade-and-a-half ago (2006), and winning that title at Wheelersburg’s expense hasn’t sat well with the Pirates for over a year.
While Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward, in an interview on Tuesday, said winning the SOC II is the Pirate program’s first goal every campaign—to take the title back from the Tigers would mean more.
“Our first and foremost goal is to win the conference. The next conference team we play is Waverly. That game decided it for us last year with a one-point (36-35) final two-point play in overtime. That’s something that has ate at us all year,” said Woodward. “Regardless of how many SOC championships or anything like that, each senior class rides on the fact that they want to be able to put their names next to it. We’re in a conference that brings a challenge each and every week, and we’re going to attack each week as it comes. They get to come into our place, and we’ve got to ride that confidence from our fan base and playing at home.”
Prior to that 36-35 overtime epic last September, the Pirates last lost an SOC road show and SOC game period in 2012 and 2013 respectively —both against Valley.
From there, they won the next six SOC II titles —including more victories over Waverly.
In fact, the Pirates own a 47-27 all-time series advantage, with Waverly’s wins since 1974 coming in 1988, 2001, 2002, 2006 and 2020.
Before the 2001 Waverly win at Wheelersburg, the Tigers’ last triumphs there came clear back over a decade-long span in the 1960s (1958, 1960, 1962, 1964 and 1968).
It’s no secret that these Tigers are good, talented and highly-touted, but they are still playing at a deafening venue — which has served as a personal house of pre-Halloween horrors.
“It’s obviously always a tough place to play, and they (Pirates) are a long-time successful program used to winning games and winning the league. They are again going to be very strong at their place, well-coached again, and fired up and ready to go,” said Waverly coach Chris Crabtree. “But that’s why you play the game, to go play in these types of situations. Our kids are going to be focused and they are going to rise to the task.”
Crabtree — who played for Waverly and was part of one Tiger team to take down the tradition-rich and proud Pirates — was an assistant on that 2006 squad, which was coached by Rusty Wright and quarterbacked by eventual Division I signee Trevor Walls.
Now the Tigers have another Division I prospect in six-foot five-inch and 205-pound senior wide receiver Will Futhey —a second-team Division IV all-Ohioan a season ago.
For this season, through six games, Futhey has 33 receptions for 506 yards and seven touchdowns —eclipsed only by Penn Morrison, with 36 receptions and 10 touchdowns with 767 yards.
Mark Stulley is close behind both Morrison and Futhey — with 29 catches, 473 yards and five TDs.
While Waverly’s wide receivers — with the exception of Phoenix Wolf — are the same as a year ago, the quarterback isn’t, but the 5-11 and 185-pound senior Wade Futhey has been just as good and spot-on as the graduated Haydn’ Shanks.
Wade Futhey, the twin brother to Will, has completed 112 of his 165 pass attempts for nine yards shy of 1,900 —with 23 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Shanks was the Division IV Southeast District Offensive Player of the Year last season, and Wade Futhey — truth be told — follows a strong suit through the first seven weeks.
But Futhey gives the Tigers more mobility from the signal-caller spot, and adds to a running game that has improved this year — with Jase Hurd.
Hurd missed most of the Tigers’ massive 35-34 win over Portsmouth with an ankle injury, but has otherwise rushed for 425 yards and six scores on 66 carries.
Waverly’s offense is indeed unique in its lightning-fast, no-huddle attack —spreading the field and snapping the ball in 15 seconds or less on every play.
Woodward is well-aware of the challenges the Tigers present, and thus tackling in space and preventing the over-the-top deep downfield bomb are paramount to the Pirates’ defensive success.
“I’m pretty impressed with what Wade (Futhey) has been able to do, just from a consistency standpoint of running their offense in an efficient manner. He is very fast in his motion and his direction of where he going with the ball. Much like Shanks was. He is utilizing his feet more than Shanks did, and their receivers all have athleticism and speed and do an outstanding job of catching the ball and running after the catch. They are much like they were last year and recently, running the same stuff as before and still putting up very good numbers,” said the coach. “We didn’t do a great job last year of tackling in space at times, and we gave up some key-down situations where we needed to make a big play. They are able to make up field position with the big plays that they can strike with at any given time. We have to fundamentally be extremely sound in our alignment, get off those blocks on the edge and come up and tackle, and limit those mistakes in crucial-down situations.”
But perhaps the Pirates’ best defense is their run-oriented offense, which will most likely aim to employ a ball-control, clock-consuming and multi-play drive approach.
Of course, more Pirate possessions keep Futhey and company on the sidelines.
However, Wheelersburg —which has been bedeviled by turnovers in its three losses so far — must move the ball on the ground without giving it away.
“We have to consistently move the chains on offense, and not get ourselves backed up behind the chains. Ball control is something I want to talk about — with not turning the football over,” said Woodward. “We have a lot of assets to finish drives with and put points on the board, but we’ve got to take care of moving the chains AND taking care of the football.”
Crabtree expects the Pirates to play keep-away as well.
Wheelersburg will likely give carries to several different backs, but also run the quarterback keeper with Eli Jones —the under-center and dangerous running threat.
“It looks like they definitely want to run the football, so we’ve got to be really good on first and second downs, and get them to do things they don’t want to do. Have to get off the field defensively, either by punts, turnovers on downs or turnovers in general,” said Crabtree. “We can’t let them extend drives or convert third downs due to big plays or penalties on our part.”
No doubt, it will definitely be a contrast in styles —with the chances of emotions running high at times, and perhaps play getting rather chippy.
All of that is just a small part of the expected atmosphere — and implications — for Friday night.
“It’s going to be a playoff-like atmosphere and I’m sure it’s going to be a great crowd,” said Crabtree. “We’re in a new situation where we’re the defending SOC II champions, but our kids are excited about defending our title and going after another.”
Meanwhile, the host Pirates play an additional yet rare card — revenge.
“Ed Miller Stadium is such a storied place to play a football game. It’s loud, we have a great fan base, and I think we do a great job of making it an exciting atmosphere. It will just be a great environment with a lot of excitement. Shaping up to be one heckuva knock-down drag-out game here,” said Woodward. “Our kids will no doubt be jacked up and ready to play.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved