McDERMOTT — Halfway through this football season, the Northwest Mohawks were a walking wounded.
Now, they might just be running their way into a second consecutive Southern Ohio Conference Division I championship —and a Division V Region 19 playoff berth.
However, the 5-4 Mohawks —winners of four straight and all inside the SOC I at 4-0 —have their toughest test to date during this injury-riddled and up-and-down and roller-coaster campaign come Friday night, in the form of the undefeated Symmes Valley Vikings.
And, an experienced group of 8-0 Vikings (3-0 in SOC I) at that —going against an underclassmen-heavy Northwest unit at this point.
But still, the Mohawks have their first two goals directly in front of them —and those are playing for another division championship, combined with a state playoff appearance.
A win and Northwest is in business, and a loss means most likely its season —starting with so much promise —is over.
“These guys have definitely stepped up. We spent the first half of the season finding ‘fits’, dealing with all the injuries that we had. Now we’ve got a pretty good crew, they are more comfortable in their new positions, and they are playing better. The mentality is right again. They are wanting to win and are realizing they can do this now,” said Northwest coach Bill Crabtree, in an interview on Tuesday. “It’s exciting to see them not give up, when they easily could have at 1-4. We were afraid that could be the case early on. But we’ve fought through that and now we’re in control of our own destiny here.”
That the Mohawks do, as they host the Vikings on Friday night inside the friendly confines of Roy Rogers Field —with kickoff set for 7 p.m.
Northwest is the defending division champion, having prevailed at Symmes Valley last season in the hills of Lawrence County —by a 10-8 defensive count.
A year earlier, the Vikings entered Roy Rogers Country and upset the Mohawks 22-16 —ending Oak Hill’s decade of dominance in the division, as the Oaks moved up to the larger-school SOC II two years ago.
Northwest, which shared the championship with Symmes Valley and Oak Hill in its initial season in the division in 2014, won over the Vikings 24-21 in overtime that year to earn a split.
The Mohawks hold a 5-2 series advantage since dropping down to the SOC I —as the Vikings shut out Northwest 30-0 five years back.
But none of that now matters, although experience actually counts for something.
These run-oriented Vikings are a good group under veteran head coach Rusty Webb —and gained that experience advantage as Northwest’s number of healthy players during the season decreased.
“They (Vikings) are good. And the big thing is their experience. In watching film from last year, all their kids which are impact players for them for the most part are still there, and our kids are different,” admitted Crabtree. “They are definitely strong and physical and well-coached, and they’ve had things go their way. The same teams we’ve played and they’ve played, like East, Notre Dame and even Huntington, the scores are very comparable. It sets up for a good game.”
And, a matchup which will unlikely see much passing.
Northwest will show its traditional yet unorthodox double-wing and double tight-end formations, while the Vikings operate more from the wishbone-like look —with four backs having carried at least 44 times for 473 yards with five touchdowns.
That quartet includes quarterback Grayson Walsh (78 carries, 654 yards, 5 TDs), Ethan Patterson (78 carries, 495 yards, 8 TDs), Levi Best (44 carries, 533 yards, 10 TDs) and Levi Niece (59 carries, 473 yards and 5 TDs).
Walsh has completed 18 of his 26 pass attempts on the year —for 302 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.
Five separate Vikings have at least two receptions for 42 yards, including Best (four for 78), Patterson (five for 95) and Brayden Webb (seven for 78).
Crabtree said the focus for amped-up practices this week has been on physicality.
“We HAVE to be more physical and aggressive. We’ve upped our ante as far as practice, probably going harder than what we have so far this season, just preparing them for that level of physicality this Friday night,” said the coach. “That way, it’s not a shock to their systems come game time. We have to take the fight and a high level of intensity to them, not wait for the game to come to us. We can’t have any off quarters against these guys. We’ve won a couple of games this year, even with bad quarters. We can’t have a letdown during this one. If we do, we’re done.”
Speaking of which, in past seasons, the Mohawks would be eliminated from state playoff consideration with a 5-4 record —but not now.
With the expansion of the OHSAA state playoffs to 16 teams per region this year, and no bye weeks with that, the top eight squads secure first-round home games.
The Mohawks, which sit 16th in the region per the second-to-last release of the official Ohio High School Athletic Association computer ratings, are indeed in with a victory.
“That’s what we keep telling them. You have to win to get in. Other than last year (all OHSAA teams automatically entered in 2020 playoffs), we’ve never been in the playoffs. We have a lot better shot with 16 teams (in each region), but if we want to continue, we have to win,” said Crabtree. “Hopefully, we bring that mentality and execute and find a way to get it done on Friday night.”
The Vikings, in Region 23 of Division VI, are comfortably in the playoffs at this point — but in sitting seventh are aiming for at least a first-rounder in Willow Wood.
Hence, to the victor goes some spoils —and for sure some hardware with another SOC I gold ball.
These young Mohawks might just be the team, if they can ball control and clock consume and keep ahead of the chains, to do that.
“Our offense is designed on ball control, and games when we do that, we give ourselves a chance,” said Crabtree. “That’s the gameplan every week. Keep the ball in our possession, because they can’t hurt us as long as we have the ball.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved