WHEELERSBURG — For the Wheelersburg Pirates, playing the Ridgewood Generals in the state football playoffs has become commonplace.
However, if you poll these Pirate seniors, it’s indeed time — and indeed their final chance — to turn the recent tide.
That’s because, in the past two seasons, Ridgewood won its Division V Region 19 semifinal against the tradition-rich and proud Pirates — including last season’s 13-10 defensive epic at Ridgewood.
But, they say that the third time is a charm, and the 8-3 and fifth-seeded Pirates certainly hope so — as Wheelersburg once again makes the lengthy trek to Coshocton County, and this time a Region 19 quarterfinal tilt against the 10-1 and fourth-seeded Generals.
And, for the third consecutive season, Wheelersburg and Ridgewood will square off on an expected chilled Saturday night —as kickoff in West Lafayette is set for 7 p.m.
The Pirates and Generals are meeting for the seventh time all-time —with all half-dozen previous meetings coming in the playoffs, and with Wheelersburg winning the first four (2007, 2010, 2015 and 2016).
Three of the matchups have taken place at Ed Miller Stadium, with two at a neutral site —including Lancaster’s Fulton Field for the semifinal two years back.
These Pirates’ upperclassmen were sophomores and even freshmen then, although some played in that contest two years ago —and again last year at Ridgewood.
So it’s not like they have zero experience, and last season’s close encounter should give them confidence about this year’s affair.
Carson Williams, the Pirates’ leading tackler at linebacker with 77 and a three-year starter, is one who has played in both games —along with fellow senior Eli Swords and placekicker and punting extraordinaire Braxton Sammons.
Last year, some spot players included lineman Joden Blackburn and all-purpose performer Eric Lattimore —while Derrick Lattimore rushed for 97 yards on 11 carries.
The head coaches are also familiar faces for each other —Wheelersburg’s 14-year mentor Rob Woodward and Ridgewood’s 17th-year veteran boss John Slusser.
“Our guys are very familiar with them. They’ve been down here three times, and now we’re playing there again. Coach (John) Slusser has been at the helm in all seven of these games and I’ve been here for all but one as the head coach, and the first year (2007) was an assistant. So we’re familiar with each other. Their coaching staff and players pour a lot into their program much like ourselves,” said Woodward, in an interview on Tuesday. “It should be a great playoff atmosphere. It was a great high school football game last year, and we’re expecting another one again this week.”
No doubt about that, as Ridgewood is an absolutely electric venue for football —much like Wheelersburg’s Ed Miller Stadium.
Of course, the other constant for Saturday night’s main event is Ridgewood senior quarterback Gabe Tingle (5-11, 180 pounds) —the two-time all-Ohio first-teamer after twice being named the East District’s Division V Offensive Player of the Year.
Two years ago, Tingle torched the Pirates for four touchdowns and 288 yards on 15-of-22 passing, and added 93 rushing yards and a short touchdown run on 16 carries.
Last year, though, the Generals’ focal point took a serious shot to his collarbone on the game’s fifth play — after rushing three times for 19 yards and completing a 15-yard pass on the opening snap.
From that point on, Tingle missed the remainder of the first half sans two plays — two handoffs to Deontae Brandon from the Pirates’ 9-yard line, the second of which was the first half’s only score in the form of a one-yard dive.
But with Wheelersburg getting on the scoreboard with a Sammons 33-yard field goal with 52 seconds remaining in the third period, Tingle —relegated to handing the ball off and rotating plays with backup Javan Belt —took two plays into his own hands.
Or, rather, his injured arm.
With the Generals driving to midfield in the final quarter, and facing 3rd-down-and-10, Tingle tossed to a wide open Kurtis Varian at the Pirate 25 —as there were simply no Pirates anywhere near Varian in defense.
Wheelersburg tackled Varian at the 15, but two plays later, Tingle threw the ball again —this one more a shot put than a football pass, but Brandon made the catch for a 14-yard touchdown with exactly eight minutes to go.
It was a nine-play, 63-yard, four-minute and 45-second scoring drive —but in a defensive struggle, a 10-point (13-3) advantage probably felt like 20.
The 13 points for Ridgewood and 10 for Wheelersburg were season-lows for both teams, but the Generals only allowed an average of seven points per game.
As for this year, Tingle missed weeks four through six with another shoulder injury —but has still completed 75 of 103 passes for 1,1212 yards and 14 touchdowns with three interceptions.
He has also rushed for four scores and 283 yards, being utilized more as a running threat than say earlier in the season.
While 5-10 and 170-pound senior Xavier Lameck (94 carries, 698 rushing yards, 7 TDs), 5-9 and 170-pound senior Kigenn Millender (250 rushing yards, 318 receiving yards and 8 TDs) and 6-1 and 170-pound senior Dalton Patterson (25 receptions, 402 yards and 5 TDs) are the other top statistical leaders — it’s indeed Tingle who makes the Generals’ spread-formation machine go.
And Woodward knows it.
The Generals’ only loss was to undefeated Garaway (Division V, Region 17) in the regular-season finale —but it was a close 19-14 defeat.
It did, though, snap the Generals’ 29-game regular-season winning streak —dating back to week 7 of the 2018 campaign.
“Coach Slusser, through our correspondence, knew that this senior class was going to be a really good senior class back when they were freshmen. Mainly because of (Gabe) Tingle, and his ability to make plays. He understands the game so well, he just makes plays with his feet and his arm. He can throw the ball 60 or 65 yards while on the run,” said Woodward. “They’ve replaced a lot of people, but they are still playing at a high level. He has a number of go-to receivers back, and they look to keep everybody honest with guarding their other players, but it’s ultimately Tingle taking the game under his wing.”
Woodward said the Garaway Pirates put pressure on Tingle, whom the coach believed wasn’t 100-percent completely healthy in that game, but “is still back playing at high level”.
In Ridgewood’s Region 19 opening-round win over Columbus Ready (35-6), Tingle ran for an estimated 100 yards and threw for over 200.
“He’s back, and we’re going to have to really work and make sure we are aligned properly and ready to bottle him up. We can’t allow him to extend plays, and we have to make sure we’re staying in coverage all the way to the end,” said the coach. “We want to put pressure on, but not to the point where he takes off and runs all over the place. He is always looking downfield to try and extend plays, and his receivers do a great job of coming back to the ball. He does a tremendous job of running the scramble drill with those guys. At the end of the day, they are spreading teams out and looking for him to gain yardage.”
Of course, there’s always the employment of ball control from the Pirates, which would keep Tingle off the field —or at least without the ball.
Tingle is also regarded as the Generals’ best defensive back, as he has been eased back into that phase.
Ridgewood runs a 4-4 base defense, something Slusser has went with for many seasons now.
Woodward wants to do that, but ball control of course only works without committing turnovers — AND staying ahead of the chains.
“Our three losses this year were all multi-turnover games. Our best defense is our offense against a player of Tingle’s caliber, but we have to make sure we maintain possession,” he said. “Methodically being able to work the ball down the field, convert on third downs, hold on to the ball, and just play great football that way.”
And, in the last two meetings, Wheelersburg hasn’t always played its best.
But, as they say, the third time can be the charm.
For the Pirates’ sake, as they make their 33rd all-time and 10th consecutive playoff appearance, hopefully it will be.
“Our kids are locked and loaded,” said Woodward. “We’ve got to go up there and play on their grass field and in a hostile environment, but our guys are excited and prepared to do that. Should be a great game. Looking to put everything together and play the best football that we can.”
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