- Rick Cassano Staff Writer
Madison High School’s football team has run into another program with plenty of playoff experience.
Such is life when it’s your first trip to the postseason.
But the Mohawks are unbeaten in playoff games, having rallied past Anna 14-10 last week, and will meet Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy in a Division V, Region 20 semifinal Friday night at Lakota East.
“Obviously we’re the least-known team left in the regional,” Madison coach Steve Poff said. “I think we’re probably the easiest to overlook, to maybe root against, but we’ll take the underdog role every time. We don’t necessarily put a whole lot of stock in what other people think about us.
“I think CHCA is good enough to be the regional champ, and I think we’re good enough to play right with CHCA. We’re not going to show up intimidated or thinking we’ve got to do nothing but trick plays to win. We’re going to go in there and run our stuff. If it doesn’t go well, we’ll adjust.”
The Mohawks (9-2) and Eagles (8-2) are high-scoring teams, averaging 38.1 and 39.6 points per game, respectively, so both squads figure to move the ball. Both teams play multiple players on both sides of the ball. The question is, which defense is going to step up and make more stops?
This is the 13th playoff appearance — and eighth straight — for CHCA, the Miami Valley Conference Scarlet Division champion.
“This is the fourth time in the playoffs for our seniors, so maybe there is a little bit of an advantage there,” Eagles coach Mark Mueller said. “Honestly, though, when that whistle blows, I think everything goes away after that. I know this: They’ve got 100 percent of our attention. They deserve to be where they’re at.”
Senior quarterback Danny Vanatsky (6-2, 205) is the triggerman for CHCA’s spread offense. He’s been outstanding, completing 132 of 195 passes for 1,984 yards and 28 touchdowns with six interceptions.
“We like to drop back and let him throw the ball, but he can run too,” Mueller said. “He’s a field general, a smart kid. He’s given us the ability to get in and out of certain things.”
Vanatsky’s No. 1 target is a tight end, senior Mason Bernhardt (6-5, 220), with 38 receptions for 762 yards. Junior Alex Barnard (5-11, 180) has rushed for 530 yards and tops the balanced backfield, while the O-line has decent size and good mobility.
“We play multiple guys in the backfield, and we’ll get our receivers involved in the run game too,” Mueller said. “We think we can hit you anywhere. We try to make you cover the whole field.”
Screen passes are a significant part of the Eagles’ offense. Mueller said his team is coming off its best offensive performance of the year in a 47-24 playoff win over Greeneview.
“I think just last week we ran screens with three receivers and two backs,” Mueller said. “Our offensive personnel, that’s what they like to do. It’s almost like a chess match. They do a great job of trying to find mismatches.”
Asked if he would characterize his team more by athleticism or physicality, the CHCA coach replied, “That’s always the thing with spread teams. They get characterized as more of a quick team and throw it outside. We like to say we can go both ways. That’s the reason we played the Fenwicks and Wyomings and Indian Hills of the world because you’ve got to be a little more physical.”
The statistics say the Eagles have run the ball 222 times and thrown it 209 times.
With the success Madison has had defending the run this year, Poff is expecting lots of CHCA passes.
“The quarterback is excellent,” Poff said. “He’ll stand in there and take hits and deliver a great ball too. They’ve got weapons all the way around, and they’re big up front.
“I’m sure everybody thinks they have the speed advantage, and they may. But alignment and reading your keys gets you there fast too. We’ve seen some really fast kids this year, and we were able to run with them.”
Defensively, the Eagles are a 4-3 team with 14 interceptions. Mueller said senior middle linebacker Noah Harrison (5-10, 185) and senior outside linebacker Cayse Osborne (5-11, 190) were standouts against Greeneview.
“Defensively, I think they play a lot like we do,” Poff said. “Their secondary comes downhill fast. If you’re running the ball, they’re coming at you.”
Madison is averaging 358.7 yards per game on the ground through its Wing-T. Junior fullback Cameron Svarda has a school-record 1,542 yards and 21 touchdowns on 173 carries.
“I ran the Wing-T for many years in New Albany, so I know the offense. I know the mentality, and I love it,” Mueller said. “I love watching the film because it’s a great offense.
“They’re good at what they do, and they’re going to get their yards. We’re decent at stopping the run, so we’re going to have to step up. I think the hardest thing for both teams is just going to be preparing. It’s a tough task for us to simulate what they do in the Wing-T, and I think it’s tough to simulate what we do offensively if you’re a Wing-T team. I guess it’s whoever can get their team prepared the best.”
This will be the Mohawks’ third game on FieldTurf this year. They lost to Monroe in Week 2 and beat Waynesville in Week 9.