Fairfield High School’s football team will make its third straight Division I, Region 4 playoff appearance Friday night at St. Xavier.
If it sounds like a familiar matchup, that’s because it is.
The Indians got handled by the 5-5 Bombers 35-14 in the first round of the postseason last year, starting a step-by-step surge that led to the third state title for St. X.
“To most people last year, we were probably looked at as the underdog, even though we were at home,” seventh-year Fairfield coach Jason Krause said. “This year, they’re the No. 1 seed and we have to go there, so everybody would say we’re the underdog.
“I think playing them last year helps us, at least with our kids’ psyche, going into this ballgame. We won’t be in awe of the atmosphere or playing down there in a big game. I’m excited to see how we do.”
Bringing a 6-4 record into the playoffs, the Indians lost to four playoff teams (Centerville, Northmont, Colerain, Mason). They’ve also clinched their fifth consecutive winning record, a first in program history.
Fairfield owns an 0-3 playoff mark in the Krause era, and the Indians have taken five straight postseason defeats since beating Moeller on Nov. 4, 2000.
“Our offseason motto of ‘Earn It’ kind of revolved around the idea that it’s time for us to earn a playoff win,” Krause said. “We know it’s our next step as a program.”
Beating the Bombers is something the Indians have never done. St. X is 3-0 in the series and stands 9-1 heading into Friday’s contest at Ballaban Field.
Steve Specht’s Bombers are the Greater Catholic League South Division champions. Their only loss came in Week 9 at Cleveland St. Ignatius.
“When we talk about failing with the kids, we need to fail forward,” said Specht, in his 14th season at the helm. “We needed to grow from that game, and I think we did. We were outcoached and outplayed. It was a good learning experience.”
St. X is loaded with talent and, incredibly, has 53 seniors on its roster. Senior quarterback Chase Wolf (6-1, 190) and senior linebacker Blake Bacevich (6-4, 225) have committed to play collegiately at Wisconsin and Cincinnati, respectively.
Last year’s state title wasn’t as surprising as it may have seemed. Specht said the Bombers got hit by some significant season-ending injuries, but they all happened early in the year, allowing the team to develop and grow over the course of the season.
It was the perfect example of tossing a record out the window once the playoffs begin. Fairfield is good enough to make some playoff noise in 2017, despite a regular season that didn’t quite live up to the Indians’ expectations.
“They’re plenty talented,” Specht said. “It’s an entirely new season. Believe me, I understand that.”
The Bombers returned a lot of experience this year, especially in the skill positions. Wolf is among the returnees and has completed 169 of 262 passes for 1,839 yards and 20 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
“Being a quarterback coach, you see him doing a lot of the little things you coach when watching him on film,” Krause said. “He moves in the pocket. He sets back up well. He throws on the run well. He just always seems under control and patient. He doesn’t let the game get too fast for him.”
The receiving crew is stocked with veterans like seniors Cameron Specht (56 catches, 423 yards, four TDs), Andrew Wittrock (38 catches, 620 yards, eight TDs) and Nick Shamsi (18 catches, 184 yards), along with junior Jared Kreimer (33 catches, 360 yards, four TDs).
St. X has thrown for 1,888 yards and rushed for 1,119. Senior Matthew Fox is the primary running back (111 carries, 519 yards, six TDs) and has caught 17 balls for 211 yards and three scores.
“Our offensive staff’s done a nice job of spreading the field this year and taking advantage of the gifts that our kids have,” Steve Specht said. “I wouldn’t say we’re pounders, but we play awful fast. We’ve got a quarterback that’s just different. There’s times he looks like a video game out there with what he sees and how he starts moving and how he directs an offense.”
Specht said it will be important for the Bombers to neutralize Fairfield’s ground game. Sophomore JuTahn McClain (92 carries, 705 yards, seven TDs) is the Indians’ leading rusher.
“Their running game is really good, and I think their offensive line is tremendous,” Specht said. “And then on defense, (senior tackle) Malik Vann is a difference maker. It’s going to come down to the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Who’s going to win that battle up front?”
St. X has 41 postseason victories, so the Bombers are used to wearing the bull’s-eye. It’s simply part of the program’s landscape.
“Do you want to be chasing someone else or do you want to set the standard?” Specht said. “We always talk about pursuing excellence, and if that means we’ve got a bull’s-eye on our back, great, so be it. That beats the alternative.
“This team has tremendous senior leadership. They learned an awful lot about dealing with adversity last year, and I think it helped to mold who they’ve become this year. We have a blueprint on how you have to approach every day and what the expectations are, and those guys have modeled it. When you talk about culture, they have bought in. They drank the Kool-Aid.”
The X-Fairfield winner will meet either Sycamore or Milford in the second round.
What: Division I, Region 4 quarterfinal, Fairfield (6-4) at St. Xavier (9-1), 7:30 p.m.
Where: Ballaban Field, 600 W. North Bend Road, Springfield Township
Fairfield playoff history: 5-7 in eight appearances (1985, 1986, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2013, 2015, 2016), winning a state title in 1986
St. Xavier playoff history: 41-20 in 23 appearances (1981, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016), winning state titles in 2005, 2007 and 2016