SCIOTO COUNTY — Ah, it’s that favorite dreaded —yet underdog often welcomed — five-seed vs. 12-seed matchup.
But, that’s traditionally been reserved for upsets in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
In this instance, it’s the opening round of the two-year expanded Ohio High School Athletic Association state football playoffs, as 9-1 and fifth-seeded West welcomes 7-3 and 12th-seeded Northwest — with both clubs capturing their respective divisions of the Southern Ohio Conference.
West, with its 14-7 regular-season finale victory over visiting Wheelersburg, won its first SOC II championship since 2008 —and recorded its first home win over Wheelersburg since that same season, its first triumph over Wheelersburg since 2011 to snap a 13-game losing streak to the Pirates, and the first ‘W’ by a Scioto County club over the Pirates since Valley did so a decade ago (2013).
Northwest, in its final football season as an SOC I member, shared the championship with Division VI Pike Eastern —bouncing back emphatically from a disappointing 23-21 loss to the visiting Eagles by blanking Symmes Valley 53-0.
As luck, or more so fate, would have it, Northwest was realistically looking at playing at West with the opening-round reveal —before the regular-season finales even took place.
The contest was officially confirmed by the OHSAA on Sunday, as the Route 104 and Scioto County rivals meet up at The Rock — in a Division V Region 19 opening-round game.
Kickoff at West High School is set for Friday night at 7 p.m.
It’s the first meeting between two in an entire decade —as the Mohawks last played the Senators in 2013, when both were members of the SOC II.
The next season, the Mohawks —to better compete at a league level —began playing in the smaller-school SOC I, and bookended shared championships in their first (2014 tri-champions) and last seasons (2022 co-champs), sandwiched around an outright title two years ago.
Northwest continued to play SOC II squads Valley and Oak Hill in the regular season, but West will be the Mohawks’ first larger division opponent — since their SOC I play is officially now complete.
In an interview earlier this week with Northwest coach Bill Crabtree, his Mohawks’ mentality in facing the balanced and strong Senators is one with nothing to lose —and everything to gain.
To some observers, Northwest is an overwhelming underdog against the favored, host and higher-seeded Senators —which were a missed extra-point kick away at Fairland from possibly going undefeated in the regular season.
“West is obviously a different animal than what we are used to. They are going to be bigger, stronger and faster than what we are used to. But at the same time, our kids are ready and are not going to back down. We’re going to bring what we have,” said Crabtree. “We’re going to have to play our best game and catch a break here and there, because any given night anything can happen. We’re obviously a big underdog in this one, but our kids are eager to get going. We have nothing to lose, and we’re enforcing to our seniors that our season doesn’t have to end on Friday night. West is a really good football team at 9-1, won a very tough conference, is a very physical team from film, but anything can happen if we play our best game. That’s what we’re focused on.”
The Senators, sky-high following Friday night’s dramatic and emotional victory over Wheelersburg, are on serious letdown alert this week —both physically and emotionally — with a possible postseason run ahead.
In an interview on Wednesday with West head coach Todd Gilliland, he stressed his Senators are back to business — after celebrating the Wheelersburg win and the SOC II title over the weekend.
But Gilliland doesn’t perceive the Mohawks to be a major underdog, as some are portraying.
Northwest was almost 9-1 itself, losing late at Division IV McClain 36-35 in week two and against Eastern 23-21 two weeks ago—sandwiched around a Mohawks M-A-S-H unit and taking the field short-handed at Huntington (46-22 loss).
Northwest’s best victory has to be over 3-7 and Division VI and archrival Valley —a 37-22 week-five triumph on The Reservation, in which the Mohawks held possession for 38-plus minutes, and en route to snapping their 17-game losing streak against the Indians.
“We don’t look at Northwest that way. Two of the games they lost early in the year they were banged up at the time. Two of those three losses are by a combined three points. They could easily be 9-1 just like us. I don’t care who you are playing, you win nine football games, that’s a good year and you have to be a successful team to do that,” said Gilliland. “We’re preaching that to our kids, and our kids have talked about them being a very formidable opponent. We have to be ready for them. Our kids aren’t worried about anything except doing our jobs and to go out and compete every play. So far in practice, that’s the way it’s been.”
West will attempt to maintain its offensive balance, both running and passing, with senior rusher Ryan Sissel shouldering that workload — behind a physical front line.
Mitchell Irwin, the senior quarterback, aims to spread the wealth with receivers Jeffery Bishop, Cole Tipton, Brandon Anderson and Alex Blevins —and Trevor Fike at tight end.
Indeed, it was Irwin’s 38-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Bishop on the final first-half play that spearheaded the Senators’ spirited second-half performance against the Pirates.
“We definitely want to stay balanced, we like that we have the ability to do both,” said Gilliland. “We don’t want them (Mohawks) to just stack the box with eight, nine or even 10 guys in there. Having all those receivers, if we can use them even in intermediate routes just to loosen Northwest up a little bit, that will key for us. We always aim to be as balanced as possible. We don’t want teams to just sit there and know exactly what’s coming.”
Although, given Northwest’s unorthodox offensive formation —all 11 men bunched in tight with foot-to-foot line splits —the Mohawks, massively, are a run-oriented club.
West will know what’s coming from the Mohawks —a heavy dose of five-foot and 11-inch and 230-pound senior fullback Wyatt Brackman, behind a physical front themselves.
“They are an old-school double-tight end foot-to-foot ‘we’re going run the ball downhill so tackle us’ type of offense, and when Brackman gets going, that can pose problems,” said Gilliland. “They can walk you down the field for three or four yards at a time, and the next thing you know, they are on your side of the 50 and that half of a quarter is over because they’ve eaten up the clock that way. It’s a different defensive challenge for us, because we’re really going to have to get a bunch of hats to the ball and hold the line of scrimmage. Brackman is that type of back that if you arm-tackle him, he is going to run through it.”
Crabtree made no mistakes about what Northwest will have to do to win.
“We’re going to try and play keep-away and control the clock,” the four-year Mohawk mentor said. “The goal is to slow things down, try to manage the clock, keep the ball out of their hands, hope we get a turnover or two or a bounce or two our way, just like we did against Valley.”
Speaking of the Indians, while Northwest won that game in what some considered as an upset —they’ll need an even greater game of ball control against the excited Senators.
And, in a 12 versus five affair, it’s happened a lot —although West will be on upset, and even letdown, alert come Friday night.
“Our kids I think respond well to being an underdog,” said Crabtree. “We played them (Senators) in the preseason in a passing scrimmage, and our kids didn’t back down that day and went right at them. Hopefully, we’ll get the same attitude coming into this one.”
The Senators will be playing their first playoff game on their brand-spanking new FieldTurf surface —all part of the refurbished “Rock”.
West was road warriors, and ultimately road-weary, following a 13-game stretch in which they did not play a single game on the West side per se.
This will be their seventh home bout this season.
“It’s great to go from zero home games to seven so far within one year. We expect another big crowd again with both sides being so close. Neither team has to travel on a bus three hours. It’s going to be a lot of fun for our kids and community for sure,” said Gilliland. “We think it will be an exciting game. We’re ready and looking forward to it.”