WEST PORTSMOUTH — Todd Gilliland, the second-year West High School head football coach, insists it isn’t about his Senators’ opponent.
Although, given the Ironton Fighting Tigers’ tradition-rich pedigree, one can’t help but wonder what a West side win would mean.
That’s because, for Friday night, the rain may be coming down but indeed the hype is up —as 11-1 and fifth-seeded West will face top-seeded and undefeated Ironton (12-0) in a Division V Region 19 semifinal.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. —inside what should be an electric, yet waterlogged, Trojan Coliseum at Portsmouth High School.
The two proud programs haven’t faced off since the 2005 regular season, but West’s “want” to keep playing in 2022 — and subsequent winning — isn’t about Ironton at all.
It’s all about the Senators still competing in the playoffs, as West won 11 games last in 2008 —following its dozen-win campaign and Division IV state runner-up two full decades ago (2002).
Gilliland, in an in-person interview with The Portsmouth Daily Times on Tuesday, talked about the Senators simply checking off goals.
The first was a win over Wheelersburg and an outright Southern Ohio Conference Division II championship, then winning playoff games over Northwest (49-6 in Region 19 opening round) and Columbus Academy (21-0 in Region 19 quarterfinals).
In fact, West was a missed extra point away from an undefeated regular season —as it fell at Fairland 14-13 in the season opener.
“The boys are motivated, but they are motivated because they have goals in mind. Everyone wants to beat Ironton, because they are one of the top teams in southern Ohio and the state year-in and year-out. They’ve been deep in the state playoffs for many years. It’s always a challenge to play Ironton, but I’m really excited for our guys that this season, they’ve wanted challenges and haven’t shied away from challenges. They are excited for this opportunity,” said Gilliland. “They understand what’s in front of them and they are ready for it and ready to battle. They’ve looked forward to this all year and have set goals, and it’s not necessarily of who we’re going to play in each playoff round. The goal is to be 1-0 for the week and control what we can control, which is our effort, attitude and mental preparation. You can tell already that’s what the focus is on.”
That focus also extends to how can the Senators score what most observers will consider a serious upset.
Ironton entered the season with a number of talented newcomers, incomers and experienced returnees, including three players — running back Jaquez Keyes to the University of Wisconsin, linebacker Trevor Carter to the University of Cincinnati, and wide receiver Ty Perkins also to the University of Cincinnati — already verbally committed to Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
Perkins, Carter and Keyes are joined by fellow senior Fighting Tigers skilled players —including quarterback Tayden Carpenter, all-purpose performer Landen Wilson, linebacker Lincoln Barnes, and two-way threats but primarily defensive backs Amari Felder, C.J. Martin and Aiden Young.
The Fighting Tigers are coached by former West standout Trevon Pendleton, who served on the Senators’ staff together with Gilliland in 2017.
West went 10-2 that year, which was also its most recent regional semifinal appearance.
“They (Fighting Tigers) have a lot of playmakers. The quarterback Carpenter does a great job of running the offense. He’s an excellent thrower, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for how well he can move around. He is strong and makes good decisions,” said Gilliland. “Then he has the receivers to get the ball to. We saw (Ty) Perkins at Valley (during his freshman and sophomore seasons), and he’s only gotten better. He is a great receiver and is a tough matchup with his size (6-4, 185) and speed. But they all can catch the ball well, and are all threats anytime they touch the ball.”
So too can Keyes, who has gotten more carries as the season has progressed —and into the playoffs.
He had eight rushes for 110 yards and two touchdowns against Portsmouth, increasing his unofficial tallies to 17 touchdowns on 134 carries for 811 yards.
“Ja (Jaquez) is a talented kid and is only getting better and better. He was banged up a little earlier in the year, but lately here he has taken on the bulk of the carries,” said Pendleton, following Ironton’s win over Portsmouth in the Region 19 quarterfinals. “He is getting in a rhythm and showing what he can do.”
“They’ve got guys at every position that are top-notch players. They are fast, physical, and definitely force you into playing maybe more of a vanilla-type defense because you can’t just focus on one guy. Because somebody else will hurt you,” said Gilliland, of the Fighting Tigers. “You have to slow them down, contain them, make sure you tackle and get a lot of hats to the ball and make plays. You need to force them into a lot of long drives. Their offense is really good about making big plays and getting quick scores. You really have to try to force them into those 10-play, 12-play drives, and maybe force a mistake on their part.”
Or, the talented and balanced Senators can just keep the football for themselves.
West will counter with a physical up-front group of its own —along with senior running back Ryan Sissel, senior quarterback Mitchell Irwin, and junior wideouts Jeffery Bishop and Cole Tipton to name a few.
“One of the biggest assets you can have in this game is your best defense being your offense. We have to keep the ball away from them. We have to execute and absolutely limit mistakes and stay ahead of the chains and keep the chains moving, and we have to score when we get inside the red zone. We have to finish drives. We can’t get down there and just settle for three points or come away with no points at all,” said Gilliland. “When we get there, we have to score seven. We have to stay on track and stay where we want to be, but we HAVE to match their physicality and keep the chains moving. Penalties, turnovers, field position, just so important that you can’t afford mistakes. We can’t turn the ball over and give them short fields. They’ve been so good at that all year against teams.”
Pendleton is well-aware of what West brings, and agrees that it’s not about the opponents’ names at this point.
“We tell our kids all the time that in the playoffs, it’s a faceless opponent. Our mantra is anyone, anytime, anywhere. We’re just excited to be playing again. As the games go on and get bigger and get bigger, it becomes even more exciting,” he said. ““West is a very talented ballclub. We’ve watched them here and there sparingly, but they are well-coached and they take a lot of pride in their football. It’s going to be fun.”
For the Senators, playing against Ironton for a berth in the Region 19 championship tilt is indeed where West is about.
“These guys are ready to go and I’m excited for them,” said Gilliland. “If we execute well, we will give ourselves a chance for sure.”