To advance to the stage that one desires, he or she must stay a step ahead of the competition at all times.
And over the course of the 2017 campaign, Rob Woodward and his Wheelersburg Pirates have done just that.
Now, with a 14-0 mark under its belt and a trip to Canton already locked up, Wheelersburg will look to take one last step — with the step putting Wheelersburg at the top rung. That, indeed, can be done if the Pirates anchor the ship successfully against Pemberville Eastwood on Friday afternoon at the storied Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
For Woodward, successfully meeting the goal of getting to the state finals is a wonderful accomplishment, in and of itself. But make no mistake about it, the 10th year head coach wants to leave Canton with a Division V State Championship — and to do that, he knows that his guys will have to beat the best of the best on Friday.
“I’m extremely proud of our guys for the effort that they have put in to get to the state finals,” Woodward said. “It’s all about striving to get to the game, and going out and striving to win the game. Our players are going to do that. We understand that we’re going to be going up against a great football team (in Pemberville Eastwood). Their kids have worked hard too, I’m sure. It’s going to be an outstanding high school football game, and we’re really proud to be a part of it.”
Over the entirety of Wheelersburg’s successful playoff push, the Pirates have had to overcome adversity that is normally seen by successful teams at some people or another. In two out of the last three weeks, Wheelersburg trailed Columbus Academy and Middletown Madison, 13-0 and 10-0, respectively, before making spirited second-half charges en route to outscoring the pair by a combined 50-6 margin in the second half behind a relentless, never-say-die attitude that is evident in the body language of the unit.
“We’ve had our adversity,” Woodward said. “We’ve had our challenges, but our team has continued to step up, push through the adversity, and do what needs to be done in order to put us in a situation to win the football game. The offense has been able to come through late in the fourth quarter.”
That was certainly clear in last week’s thrilling 15-10 victory over Madison, when an upperclassman, yet again, made a huge play to turn the tide of momentum.
After a second-half opening turnover on an interception allowed the Mohawks to obtain a field goal, Madison got the ball back again on a fumble recovery. Evan Dahm, however, answered with an interception that the junior linebacker returned out to the Wheelersburg 25, which resulted in two ensuing first downs for the offense. As a result, the Pirates were able to flip field position and give the offense a shorter field, which made the contest more manageable for Wheelersburg as a whole.
“That was a huge play,” Woodward said of Dahm’s interception. “It really gave us a spark and allowed us to start turning the momentum around. We had to punt the football away, but that play allowed us to change the field position and pin (Middletown Madison) back deep. From there, we end up recovering a fumble, and then the offense gets rolling.”
The discipline shown on special teams, as it has been all year long, was also huge. Senior captains Nic Parsley and Bryson Keeney each made two critical tackles on fourth-down special teams plays that ended up being runs — the first tackle made by Keeney on a forced run behind a bobbled punt and the second being on a designed fake that Parsley stopped in its tracks — and were crucial to the outcome.
“Nic Parsley and Bryson Keeney made two huge plays there,” Woodward said. “Both of those guys made plays in situations where Madison really needed to make a play. Special teams is something that we’ve continued to put a lot of emphasis on. We’ve got starters out there working in those positions, and it continues to be such an important part of the game that we put just as much emphasis on as we do from an offensive and defensive standpoint.”
And as with the previous three weeks — which featured outstanding running backs such as Columbus Academy’s Dorrian Moultrie, Johnstown-Monroe’s Bryce Barasch, and Madison’s Cameron Svarda, Eastwood, too, has a stellar running back of its own in Jayden Rayford, who has rushed for 2,107 yards and 34 touchdowns on 322 carries in 2017.
“They haven’t had to throw during the postseason because they’ve done such a good job running the football,” Woodward said. “They’ve got (Jayden Rayford) there, who is a workhorse. He carried the ball 40 times (against Canfield South Range) and just does an outstanding job.”
However, Eastwood’s additional offensive options are certainly Fellow backfield counterpart Ian Downard isn’t half-bad, to say the least: he’s rushed for 728 yards and 10 touchdowns on 90 carries. And even though Eastwood plays in the run-heavy Wing-T, senior quarterback Jake Pickerel has done an outstanding job in the throwing department, having thrown for 503 yards and eight touchdowns to just two interceptions — a 4-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio — in 2017.
“They have a small amount of formations and a small amount of plays with the Wing-T,” Woodward said. “They’ve steamrolled over everybody and haven’t had to do a lot of things in situations, especially through the playoffs. They’ve kept things very basic, and haven’t showed a lot of what they can do. We’ve got to recognize the things that they do well, because we’ve obviously worked against some good opponents throughout the playoffs here, and at the same time, know in the back of our minds that we’ve got some other options and things that we can go to. We’ve got to be alert and ready for that at all times.”
However, there is no doubt that Wheelersburg — who has only allowed 468 yards rushing on 141 carries through four playoff affairs — will be up for the task, especially with senior captains in Xander Carmichael (91 tackles, three sacks), Nic Parsley (87 tackles, six sacks), Alex George (58 tackles), and Bryson Keeney (43 tackles, two interceptions) leading the charge. Dahm (78 tackles, two interceptions), Avery Donini (61 tackles), and Makya Matthews and Tanner Holden, who each have four picks apiece, lead an extremely stout and deep defensive unit that has seen 51 players make at least one tackle in 2017.
“We recognize the task at hand, and each of the weeks have helped to prepare us for this offense that we’re getting ready to face, so we’re trying to put our student-athletes in the best position to be successful, and go out there and win this game,” Woodward said.
Defensively, Eastwood sports a 5-2 look, but tends to drop its edge defender of the front five back into coverage, which has helped make the Eagles a lethal unit on that side of the football. Tyler Schmeltz leads the way with 108 tackles, but Zach Henline and Antonio Salinas, who have combined for 163 tackles, 37 tackles for loss, and 25.5 sacks, and Tyler Haas, who has a team-high six interceptions for a unit that has pitched two shutouts in the playoffs and has outscored its opponents by a 145-21 margin in the playoffs, are more than viable threats to Wheelersburg’s potent offensive attack.
That attack, however, has proven that it can beat teams over the top or run right over top of opponents throughout the playoffs, and the year.
That’s evident just with Holden, an Ohio Mr. Football nominee who has caught 80 passes for 1,488 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2017 on his own, and Trent Salyers, who has obtained 3,780 yards of total offense and 44 total touchdowns — including 3,301 yards and 34 passing scores through the air.
They, along with Carmichael, who has scored nine touchdowns from an offensive standpoint, and the rushing tandem of Dominic Reyes and Evan Horsley, who have combined for 14 touchdowns in 2017, have been aided by a fantastic line that can go two-deep. CJ Hall, the fifth of the five senior captains, is the anchor of said line.
With a four-hour trip to Canton, some programs who don’t think a step ahead of their goals could very well be caught off-guard. However, as if the state trip was meant to be all along, Woodward and his group have prepared themselves for that, as well.
“Thursday’s going to be a little bit different as we’ll be leaving and making our way up to Canton then,” Woodward said. “However, we practiced that routine and did an overnight stay earlier in the season when we traveled up to a camp at Ohio Wesleyan University. We had guys in assigned rooms and took care of the normal routines, such as getting up on time. All of that has been a preparation to get us ready for this moment, and our kids are focused. They’re ready. We really appreciate all of the support that we have, and I’m excited. This trip to the ship, as we’ve called it, is where we want to be.”
And while in one of the most hallowed football facilities in the world, Woodward wants the program to continue to take on the embodiment of what the Wheelersburg community is all about — because it is that sense of community pride that got the Pirates to this very stage.
“(Getting to the state finals) is a daunting task to achieve,” Woodward said. “It takes a lot of hard work. There aren’t many teams that have come through this Wheelersburg program that have achieved this high of a level. We’re really pleased and proud to be here, and we’re going to go out and represent the Wheelersburg community in the best manner that we can. We’re going to continue to work to reach higher, even in how we represent ourselves, as we travel out to Canton. There will be a lot of new people who will be exposed to Wheelersburg football, the Wheelersburg community, and Wheelersburg as a whole. They get to see the passion that we have for the game of football, and I’m excited to show that to the rest of the state.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT