Pirates playing on


Burg faces Harvest Prep for Region 19 title

By Paul Boggs - pboggs@aimmediamidwest.com



Wheelersburg seniors Hunter Thomas (16) and Braxton Sammons (80) celebrate the Pirates’ 17-14 victory over Ironton in the Division V Region 19 semifinals.

Wheelersburg seniors Hunter Thomas (16) and Braxton Sammons (80) celebrate the Pirates’ 17-14 victory over Ironton in the Division V Region 19 semifinals.


Courtesy of Tim Gearhart

Wheelersburg quarterback Eli Jones (8) hands off to running back Ethan Glover (24) during the Pirates’ Division V Region 19 semifinal football playoff game against Ironton.


Courtesy of Tim Gearhart

WHEELERSBURG — Three months ago, maybe —even perhaps probably— Wheelersburg, with its difficult schedule, wasn’t going to host a first-round playoff game.

Let alone be the last men standing in the Southeast District for football in 2021.

But, indeed here we are with these Pirates — playing in Saturday night’s Division V Region 19 championship bout, playing the role of district flag-bearer once again, and playing pretty much with plenty of house money.

That’s because 10-3 Wheelersburg —for the fifth time in its tradition-rich and proud program history —will be playing football for a 14th week in a single season, with an excellent opportunity to make it a second all-time week 15.

Although impossible early on most likely — but given definite improvement all throughout — the fifth-seeded Pirates, sure enough, find themselves prepping for second-seeded Harvest Prep.

The Pirates play the Warriors, with another regional championship at stake, for the first time ever —as kickoff at Waverly’s rave Raidiger Field on a cold Saturday night is set for 7 p.m.

With Wheelersburg appearing in the state playoffs for the 33rd time all time and now owners of a 44-30 postseason record — the Pirates are playing for their ninth all-time regional championship.

The eight include 1981, 1991, 1994, 1998, 2015 and 2018 —along with their state championship seasons of 1989 and 2017.

Of those eight regional crown campaigns, four featured football for a 14th consecutive week —1989, 2015, 2017 and 2018.

This fifth one, though, had to be the most unexpected —given how young, inexperienced and even injured the Pirates were in the preseason and season’s first half.

But the Pirates, starting two months ago at Minford, have crafted an eight-game winning streak —with their last two wins by far their best.

They avenged last season’s defensive epic (13-10) at Ridgewood with a 24-20 come-from-behind triumph in the quarterfinals, then truly turned Ironton over in a 17-14 comeback for the ages in the semifinals—totally reversing a 40-6 season-opening defeat in which the Fighting Tigers turned four Pirate giveaways into touchdowns.

After that game, Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward —with emotion in his eyes and in the heat of the moment and answering the interview question asked —said the win over Ironton “right now, with these kids and the adversity we have faced this year, this is right up there near the top.”

“Everybody talked about it all week, but nobody truly knows except our coaching staff and our kids the actual growth that has taken place day in and day out. It’s not all sunshine and roses out here celebrating wins. There were tough, tough, tough moments where we had to have good and hard conversations with kids and recognize situations,” said Woodward. “Here we are moving on to week 14, and just the growth these guys have had mentally and physically working at the game of football, they just haven’t flinched.”

Indeed, the Pirates have stared down the proverbial barrel and not blinked an eye — as they move on to face the high-powered Warriors, whom some observers believe was the best Region 19 team going into the playoffs.

Harvest Prep played nine regular-season contests, with its week-five matchup against Grandview Heights having been canceled —following an open week two weeks before that.

The now 9-2 Warriors, up until last season’s jump to Division V in which they lost at Ironton 21-14 in the Region 19 semifinals, were a recent Division VII stronghold —playing the likes of Trimble and Waterford in Region 27.

“They are not necessarily new to the playoff atmosphere,” said Woodward, of the Warriors, in an interview on Tuesday.

But the incorporation of competitive balance bumped them two divisions higher —as their only setbacks are close, defensive-oriented encounters against Division III Columbus Hartley (21-14) and Division II Licking Heights (13-8).

They opened the season with a 60-34 blowout of Eastmoor, before losing at Hartley the following week — and not allowing any more than 14 points in any game since.

Chandler Burrell —a six-foot and 195-pound senior —anchors the defense at linebacker, leading the way with 86 tackles, including 13 for loss with four sacks.

Another senior linebacker — 6-2, 190-pound Edjay Sumo —made 54 tackles with 17 for loss, and also collected eight sacks with four forced fumbles and five blocked punts.

Yes, count’ em all up, punts blocked totaling five.

Offensively, it’s almost all about — when he’s healthy —5-11 and 195-pound senior running back Jaylen Jennings, a first-team all-Ohioan from a year ago and a verbal commit to Bowling Green.

He missed most of this season due to an ankle injury, but has returned and rushed for 582 yards and eight touchdowns on 75 carries.

Per Steve Blackledge, formerly of The Columbus Dispatch and currently of www.pressprosmagazine.com, Jennings received 23 scholarship offers.

The quarterback is 6-2, 190-pound junior Aidan Rogers, who passed for 1,200 yards through eight games — with 386 rushing yards on 74 attempts and 16 total touchdowns.

The Warriors’ head coach —Milan Smith —was named the Central District Division V Coach of the Year.

The Pirates would be aware of the Warriors with the Division III boys basketball regional tournaments, from the 2018 and 2019 seasons — so there is knowledge of them being athletic.

“We know they are going to have athletes, and are obviously put in positions to be successful,” said Woodward. “They have a variety of formations that they utilize. Their quarterback Rogers does a good job with his feet and is fast and explosive. He throws the ball to a number of receivers. Then Jaylen Jennings just jumps out at you. He has been an explosive player and the featured back for them. They have some big size on their defensive and offensive lines, but just a lot of speed on the field.”

Indeed, the Warriors have speed.

“Just a lot of speed. It’s something we’re definitely going to have to account for,” emphasized Woodward. “We’ve played teams that have good speed…Ironton in terms of its defense and running back positions, and Waverly has always had good speed. It’s another game in which our guys are going to have to settle in and recognize where these threats are. They have a number of them. They are about a 60-40 run-pass team. They have guys that can stretch the field vertically and they like to throw screens in spots and bubbles out on the perimeter. They use misdirection a lot with their offensive sets.”

Wheelersburg will counter the Warriors with a strong defense of its own — one which shut out Ironton for the final 42 minutes and 20 seconds, and only allowed 163 total yards sans its two scores a mere minute and two seconds apart in the opening quarter.

The Pirates must swarm to the football, tackle in space, put pressure on Rogers, and not let Jennings break free.

Turning over the Warriors won’t hurt either.

“We can’t give up big plays. We have to gang-tackle and get a number of hats to the ball. And we have to make sure we are wrapping up, because they have athleticism that gets turned loose at times. We have to bottle that up,” said Woodward. “Pre-snap alignment is going to be huge for us.”

Of course, the Pirates’ best defense —once again —might be a ball-control offense, engineered up front by its line and with Eli Jones (quarterback) and Ethan Glover (running back) getting the lion’s share of the carries.

An Orange and Black bread-and-butter has been playing a game of keep-away —of which Wheelersburg will need to play mistake-free, control the clock, stay ahead of the chains, and perhaps most importantly complete drives.

“Playoff football, you can’t make mistakes. You can’t turn the ball over and you HAVE to finish drives with points,” said Woodward. “We have to make sure we’re patient and looking to capitalize on our opportunities. Make sure we create multiple opportunities defensively, and give our offense as many chances as possible.”

So far, the improved Pirates are indeed doing enough to advance —to their 14th game on Saturday night, with an opportunity at an unbelievable 15th week and ninth state semifinal.

Speaking of believing, combined with preparing, the Pirates are now quite capable of winning perhaps an improbable regional championship.

“Our guys are fully aware that win (over Ironton) was a step we needed to take in order to advance. We were on the bus back from Portsmouth the other night (Saturday), and we were ready to move on to the next game. Here we are in week 14 now, and our preparation has been fully on Harvest Prep,” said Woodward. “These kids believe in each other and they are having fun playing with each other. That’s the key to being in the playoffs this long. They enjoy the everyday grind and work that it’s going to take in order to have ourselves playing at a high level once again. Our kids have worked extremely hard, and nothing has been handed to them. They have gone out and EARNED this opportunity to prepare, practice and play another week.”

Wheelersburg seniors Hunter Thomas (16) and Braxton Sammons (80) celebrate the Pirates’ 17-14 victory over Ironton in the Division V Region 19 semifinals.
https://www.portsmouth-dailytimes.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/28/2021/11/web1_HP-Burg-PRE-Pirates-celebrate-.jpgWheelersburg seniors Hunter Thomas (16) and Braxton Sammons (80) celebrate the Pirates’ 17-14 victory over Ironton in the Division V Region 19 semifinals. Courtesy of Tim Gearhart

Wheelersburg quarterback Eli Jones (8) hands off to running back Ethan Glover (24) during the Pirates’ Division V Region 19 semifinal football playoff game against Ironton.
https://www.portsmouth-dailytimes.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/28/2021/11/web1_Burg-HP-Preview-Pic-.jpgWheelersburg quarterback Eli Jones (8) hands off to running back Ethan Glover (24) during the Pirates’ Division V Region 19 semifinal football playoff game against Ironton. Courtesy of Tim Gearhart
Burg faces Harvest Prep for Region 19 title

By Paul Boggs

pboggs@aimmediamidwest.com

Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at pboggs@aimmediamidwest.com, or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved

Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at pboggs@aimmediamidwest.com, or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved