It’s Madison-Wheelersburg II, this time for a regional football title

MADISON TWP. — Nearly one year later, the Madison and Wheelersburg prep football teams have found their way back to each other.

Wheelersburg rallied from a 10-0 deficit to knock off the Mohawks 15-10 in the 2017 Division V state semifinals, then topped Pemberville Eastwood to win the state title.

They’re both in Region 20 this year, and they’ll square off for that championship Saturday night at Hilliard Darby.

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“You can put whatever label you want on this game,” Madison coach Steve Poff said. “Most important game … revenge or avenging whatever happened last year … we just need to concentrate on ourselves. Most of the people that are posting on social media and message boards don’t have much invested in this thing, so their opinions don’t matter to me, and I hope they’re not affecting our kids. It doesn’t matter who sportswriters pick to win.

“There’s going to be 48 minutes of football either way, and we’ve got to play great in them. That’s the bottom line. If you come out and play average against Wheelersburg, you’re going to lose by four touchdowns. If we come out and play great, I feel like we can hold our own. I think we’re good at what we do, and they’ve got to line up and stop some of the stuff we do too.

“I feel like our kids are emotionally ready. We’ve been putting a lot of pressure on them in practice and putting them in situations and correcting problems that we’ve had all year. As far as our kids see it, this will be the biggest game in school history. I think that’s their approach to it.”

The Mohawks are 12-0 and have outscored their opponents 526-51. The Pirates are 11-1 (with a decisive loss to Columbus Hartley) and have outscored their opponents 437-110.

Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward said he has 14 kids — seven on each side of the ball — who were impact players last season.

“One thing I’m really proud of as a coach is seeing how well we’ve grown throughout the year because we had a lot of new faces in different positions,” Woodward said. “I feel like we’re playing our best football right now. Guys have taken ownership of their positions. Our coaching staff does such a good job of putting guys in positions to be successful and not setting them up for failure.

“We’ve got the experience of playing Madison last year. We know they’re big and physical up front. They do a good job attacking you, and they do a good job with their hands. At this stage, I’m sure there’s wrinkles that all coaches keep in their back pocket, and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready for that chess match if they do show themselves.”

The Pirates’ spread offense has many different looks and is led by senior quarterback Trent Salyers, who’s 132-of-207 for 2,341 yards and 27 touchdowns with six interceptions. His top receivers are 6-foot-6, 180-pound senior Tanner Holden (72 catches, 880 yards, 12 TDs) on the outside and junior Makya Matthews (59 catches, 772 yards, nine TDs) in the slot.

“We’ve got a lot of intelligence on this offense,” Salyers said. “I’d say on the outside we’ve got speed, but we’ve got some big boys up front that’ll hit you. It’s all about being smart with our playmakers and making the big play when we need to.”

Woodward said Wheelersburg had a lot of holes to fill on the offensive and defensive lines this year.

Senior center Baylen Haywood (5-11, 210) is the lone returning starter on the O-line. He is joined by junior left tackle Kaleb Johnson (6-1, 200), sophomore left guard Blake Richardson (6-3, 285), junior right guard Ethan Goode (6-3, 200) and senior right tackle Kevin Meadows (6-4, 230).

“As a whole, I would characterize them as athletic and able to move well,” Woodward said. “I was really excited to get this group because they were the scout team running against our defensive line last year, and they gave us such a good look. I thought that really propelled us last year.”

Madison’s strength is its run defense with seniors Levi McMonigle (6-6, 210), Cole Pelgen (6-0, 245), Max Evans (6-2, 260) and Tanner Limon (6-1, 190) on the line. The Pirates are averaging 164.2 yards per game on the ground, with senior Ashton Clevenger (121 carries, 664 yards, four TDs) leading the way.

The Mohawks’ defensive front has been a force all season. Can Wheelersburg’s O-linemen win that battle? That’s one of the game’s biggest questions.

The Pirates use a 4-2-5 defense, and senior Evan Dahm (6-1, 220) and junior Evan Horsley (5-10, 190) are the anchors at linebacker. Senior defensive end Chase Stidham (6-1, 185) has six sacks, and Matthews (5-9, 175) has four picks at free safety.

Matthews is a guy to keep an eye on. He piled up 311 all-purpose yards, three touchdowns and an interception last week against Jamestown Greeneview. He’s averaging 31.6 yards on kickoff returns and 17.6 yards on punt returns.

“The mentality is all attack mode all the time,” Dahm said. “The defense may not look the biggest, the strongest, the most athletic on paper. But man, we get after the ball, and we will get on you and hit you in the mouth.”

“Defensively, Wheelersburg lines up right and runs to the ball,” Poff said. “They love being physical, and they love being fast. They make a ton of one-on-one tackles. That’s what happens when you get up against a well-coached, disciplined team that wants to play hard.”

Woodward knows his defense will be challenged. The Mohawks are churning their way to 356 rushing yards per game in the Wing-T, paced by seniors Evan Crim (118 carries, 1,104 yards, 14 TDs) and Cameron Svarda (141 carries, 993 yards, 12 TDs), along with junior Jake Phelps (92 carries, 843 yards, nine TDs)

Wheelersburg has the edge in the kicking game. Senior Jalen Miller is a four-year player who hit a 46-yard field goal this year. Svarda isn’t a bad kicker for Madison, but Poff likes to go for two and avoid field-goal attempts.

Good field position was a major factor in last year’s matchup at Chillicothe. The Mohawks had it early, Wheelersburg had it late.

“We couldn’t get anything going offensively when we needed to,” Poff recalled. “When we needed a first down, we couldn’t get it or didn’t get it. I don’t think we got worn down. I think our confidence was fading a little bit. We had a miscue on a special-teams down, and that’s all a good team like that needs.”

Madison senior quarterback/cornerback Mason Whiteman remembers a lot of self-inflicted wounds for his team. The Mohawks were whistled for illegal procedure 11 times, though Poff said that was caused by the WHS defenders mimicking the snap count.

“I’d say we had that game pretty much under control until we just started basically shooting ourselves in the foot,” Whiteman said. “But you can’t take anything away from them. They did go on and win state, so they definitely did what they had to do.”

Salyers had this to say about last year’s game: “I mostly just remember their defense getting a lot of pressure on me, forcing me to get the ball out quick. You have to be smart and patient and work them down instead of taking the deep ball and trying to stretch too much.”

Dahm said both teams should be ready to hit all night long.

“I’m expecting a war and I hope Madison’s expecting a war,” he said, “and we’ll see who comes out on top.”

Saturday’s game

What: Division V, Region 20 football championship, No. 2 seed Madison (12-0) vs. No. 1 seed Wheelersburg (11-1) at Hilliard Darby, 7 p.m.

Where: Hilliard Darby Stadium, 4200 Leppert Road, Hilliard

Next: Winner advances to the state semifinals at 7 p.m. on Nov. 24 at a neutral site against either Orrville, Akron Manchester, Johnstown-Monroe, Byesville Meadowbrook, Genoa Area or Liberty Center

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