- Rick Cassano Staff Writer
Madison High School’s football team has found another traditional state power in its path.
The Mohawks (11-2) have taken a dream ride to the Division V state semifinals in their first postseason appearance, but they’ll have to knock off Wheelersburg (13-0) at Chillicothe on Friday night to reach the state championship game.
“Our kids are going to go out and be who they are,” Madison coach Steve Poff said. “It’s just go out and play your best. If we win, we win. If we lose and played our best, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I know we won’t be intimidated.
“There’s way worse tragedies in this world than losing a high school football game. Other teams are probably looking at it differently, but this is not live or die. If we lose, guess what? Thirty days from now we’re going to start lifting again and come right back to it.
“Other people outside this locker room can hype it up and make it into whatever they want. For us, it’s a high school football game, and we want to go play our best. That’s it.”
Wheelersburg, the Southern Ohio Conference Division II champion, has buried its schedule by an average score of 43-8 this season, and this will be the 61st playoff game in school history.
The Pirates haven’t had much success at this stage of the postseason — they’re 1-5 in state semifinals — though 10th-year coach Rob Woodward said his team is playing at a high level.
“I know our guys will be hungry,” Woodward said Tuesday evening during an interview in the coaches office at Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg. “Our theme this year is, ‘Reach Higher,’ and we’ve got a ladder out there in the locker room that gives us a visual goal of what we want to achieve.
“We’ve got a respect for the game — that’s something we talk about a lot. I have confidence in our players that we’re going to come out and play a style of football that represents what the people of Wheelersburg have come to know as Pirate football. Good blocking, good tackling, take care of the football and we’ll see what happens.
“The style of offense and defense that we try to run is really focusing on the speed that we have and the athleticism that we have to try to put pressure on a defense or try to bottle up what an offensive team’s trying to do.”
The most intriguing matchup here is Madison’s Wing-T ground attack vs. Wheelersburg’s 4-2-5 defense. The Mohawks have chewed up 4,739 yards on the ground for an average of 364.5 … the Pirates have allowed 944 rushing yards for an average of 72.6.
Wheelersburg faced a similar ground-and-pound squad last week in Johnstown-Monroe. The Johnnies ran for 152 yards (88 came on two runs) in a 34-7 defeat.
“It’s the best run defense that we’ve ever had here,” Woodward said. “People say, ‘Well, you’ve got five defensive backs out there.’ That’s true, but those DBs are among the guys leading us in tackles, and those tackles are happening at the line of scrimmage or not very far behind that. We’ve got guys that are very effective at getting downhill quickly.”
Junior Avery Donini (6-0, 170) and sophomore Evan Horsley (5-9, 180) are two of those safeties that like to move and hit. Senior Xander Carmichael (6-2, 220) and junior Evan Dahm (6-1, 210) are standout linebackers, and Woodward said his all-senior defensive line — Nic Parsley (6-1, 215) and Alex George (6-0, 195) on the outside, Jeremy Cooper (5-8, 205) and C.J. Hall (6-0, 215) on the inside — is quick and tenacious.
“We’ve faced more run than spread-type teams, but we’ve seen both,” Woodward said. “That’s really why we run the 4-2-5 defense. We feel it’s the best thing that can match up vs. all the things that we face.”
Collectively, the Pirates have 24 sacks, 16 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. Madison has 43 sacks, 13 picks and 11 fumble recoveries.
Wheelersburg’s spread offense has been highly effective. Its lowest total has been 34 points.
Junior quarterback Trent Salyers (6-1, 175) is 182 of 275 for 3,172 yards and 33 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Two receivers have big numbers — 6-6, 180-pound junior Tanner Holden (96 catches, 1,427 yards, 20 TDs) and 6-1, 180-pound senior Cole Lowery (70 catches, 811 yards, three TDs).
“They’ve got skill players all over the field, and it’s probably the best quarterback we’ve seen so far,” Poff said. “This kid’s not just throwing it up. He’s throwing into windows, and he’s definitely a dual threat. We’ve played a lot of quarterbacks that can extend drives. This kid can go the distance from anywhere on the field with his feet.”
The Mohawks have been bruisers when it comes to stopping the run. They haven’t been as successful against the pass, though Madison rose up with four picks last week against West Jefferson.
The Pirates have rushed for 2,377 yards, with Salyers notching 475 yards and 10 touchdowns on 95 carries. Senior Dominic Reyes (5-6, 150) has a team-high 633 yards and eight scores on 99 runs, even after missing four games with a high ankle sprain.
Carmichael is a tight end who will occasionally step in as a power back. He’s run the ball 19 times and scored six TDs.
“There’s no great advantage on the lines either way, just a lot of strong kids that can move,” Poff said. “We’ve been told all season, and especially in the postseason, that we couldn’t cover anybody’s receivers. We haven’t had 100 percent success at stopping people throwing the ball, but we’ve slowed ’em down enough to advance.
“I feel good about the matchup. They’re not doing anything we haven’t seen. I’m sure they’re going to make their plays, and I’m sure we’re going to make our plays. We’ve just got to figure out who’s going to make more.”
Woodward said Wheelersburg’s offense operates at a fast pace.
“With the spread, a lot of people think you’re more of a finesse team, and I would definitely characterize us as having finesse,” he said. “But we also like to think of ourselves as a power run team too, and we really try to keep teams on their heels by being as balanced as we can be.
“We look to do a little bit of everything. We believe with the style of athletes we have, if we were a one-dimensional team, we would always wind up running into a barrier as we got deeper into the postseason. So we came to the realization that we needed to mesh a lot of things. Our offense is very complex in all the things we need to do, but high school athletes are extremely intelligent and have the capacity to handle a lot of things.”
Woodward, who was a Pirate assistant for five seasons before becoming the head man, said his squad has some resilience. Wheelersburg has battered practically everybody, but did have to rally from a 13-0 halftime deficit to beat Columbus Academy 35-16 in Week 12.
The WHS coach said he’s impressed with the way Madison plays.
“What I can tell by watching them is they do a very good job of putting their players in position to be successful,” Woodward said. “They’ve tapped into the skill sets of what their players can do, and they’re running with that.”
Woodward, a farmer’s son and 1997 graduate of Gallia Academy, does have a connection to Southwest Ohio football. He played with Ross coach Kenyon Commins at Ohio Wesleyan University. They were also roommates.
“I was an outside linebacker, he was a fullback,” Woodward said. “We both learned a lot from one another over the years. We were groomsmen in each other’s weddings and still get together as families whenever we can. We’re big family guys who really have a lot of pride and a lot of respect for the communities that we’re a part of and the things that we hold dear.
“I hope people see the work that he’s trying to do (at Ross). He has an uncanny ability to wrangle people in and get them going in the direction they need to go.”