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At Wheelersburg, winning football games and work ethic go hand in hand

WHEELERSBURG — Trent Salyers is the senior quarterback for Wheelersburg High School’s football team, and just saying those words will make him smile.

Why? Because he’s been thinking about it for as long as he can remember.

“Oh yeah, ever since I could walk I’ve been watching Wheelersburg football and wanting to be the quarterback for this team,” Salyers said Tuesday evening at Ed Miller Stadium. “Luckily my time has come to put my team in the position to win.”

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» Hilliard Darby is the site for Madison vs. Wheelersburg

Winning is part of the everyday plan here in Scioto County, about eight miles east of Portsmouth along the banks of the Ohio River.

Wheelersburg is the defending Division V state champion and is in the process of trying to get another title — the 11-1 Pirates will meet 12-0 Madison for the Region 20 championship Saturday night at Hilliard Darby. Last year, the Burg rallied from a 10-0 deficit to beat Madison 15-10 in the state semifinals.

It’s the 30th playoff appearance for Wheelersburg. The program has endured just five losing records since its birth in 1953. From 1965 to the present, the Pirates have had exactly one losing season (2000), and that was a playoff year that ended at 5-6.

The atmosphere is pure small-town football where passions run high and Friday nights are community celebrations.

Wheelersburg High School senior quarterback Trent Salyers talks about his team and the atmosphere surrounding the Pirates football program.

“There’s nothing like it,” senior linebacker Evan Dahm said. “The community does an incredible job backing us. It’s the rich tradition here, and being a part of something like this doesn’t happen many other places.”

Rob Woodward isn’t a born-and-raised Wheelersburg guy, but he’s been coaching here for 16 years, the last 11 as the head coach. He described Wheelersburg home games as “the greatest show in Southern Ohio.”

The stadium, built into a steep hillside, was renovated in 2012. The home stands are always packed and loud. The sound system blasts music throughout game night, creating more of a college-football feel. And there are milk jugs being shaken everywhere for distinctive cheering sound effects.

What’s in those milk jugs? “Popcorn kernels, I think,” Woodward said.

The loudest noise comes from the cannon that shoot blanks whenever the Pirates take the field or score.

Wheelersburg High School senior linebacker Evan Dahm talks about his team’s mentality and what the Pirates defense brings to the table.

“If you’re not prepared, it will definitely scare the heck out of you,” Woodward said. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Golly, I know Wheelersburg had a good game. It sounded like World War III up there firing that cannon.’ ”

Wheelersburg is part of the Division II side of the Southern Ohio Conference along with Minford, Lucasville Valley, Portsmouth West and Waverly. Next year, Oak Hill will make it a six-team division.

The Pirates have won 33 SOC championships. They’re 37-27 in playoff games dating back to 1981, though winning state titles has been a tall order for teams in this part of Ohio. Wheelersburg has only done it twice (Division IV in 1989 and 2017).

“We’ve always got that target on our back,” Dahm said. “You know that you’re going to be the team to beat after what we accomplished last year. Everybody says nobody south of Columbus is going to win in D-V, and we kind of proved them wrong. There’s other teams like Madison out there that want to prove it for themselves too.”

The program’s tradition produces expectations, and expectations produce pressure in one form or another. Fans care deeply about winning and the people involved in the program. They also care deeply when it comes to losing.

School spirit is running high at Wheelersburg High School as the Pirates prepare to face Madison for the Division V, Region 20 championship Saturday night at Hilliard Darby. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

“There’s plenty of people that have their opinions about things that happen,” Woodward said with a smile. “We don’t let that affect us. We try to maintain a work ethic and a style of just aggressive football.”

Said Salyers, “We’ve always had that reputation of winning. Keeping that prestige is a little bit of pressure.”

Woodward said stability is a big part of the program’s success. He noted that “the assistants that I have now are the same guys that were here when I came 16 years ago. We’ve all worked to establish a program and maintain that position.”

Support comes from everywhere. Ed Miller — the former WHS coach with his name on the stadium — has grandchildren in the program and is regularly on site.

“He’s still a vital part of this community,” Woodward said. “He comes in on Saturdays and shakes our hand and congratulates us or lets us know if maybe there’s some things we could’ve changed.”

The foundation of Wheelersburg High School’s football program is on the wall in the school’s weight room. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

The 2018 Pirates are a formidable crew. Offensively, they’re a spread team that uses a lot of formations. They’ve rushed for 1,970 yards with a balanced crew of runners, and Salyers has thrown for 2,341 yards and 27 touchdowns. Defensively, Dahm has a team-leading 82 tackles for a unit that has 18 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries.

Wheelersburg took a 51-20 road spanking from Columbus Hartley in Week 2. Woodward said the SOC II was stronger this year than in recent seasons, but he wanted to upgrade the nonleague schedule and got a two-year deal with Hartley, which will come to Ed Miller Stadium next season.

Woodward said four turnovers played a huge role in the Week 2 defeat.

“We had a lot of new faces in different positions,” he said. “I think that game was a great evaluation tool. I wanted to accept that challenge and get our guys to respond to adversity, and we did that. We also made some changes as coaches. It makes you push players maybe a little out of their comfort zone and see what they can do.”

Ed Miller Stadium is the home of the Wheelersburg Pirates, who will face Madison on Saturday in the Division V, Region 20 championship game at Hilliard Darby. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

That concept of pushing players is one of Woodward’s core beliefs. He was a farm kid, a 1997 Gallia Academy graduate who played outside linebacker at Ohio Wesleyan University. He wants his players to compete with a blue-collar attitude.

“It was tough, but gosh, I miss a lot of that small-town farming life. Small rural farms are kind of an anomaly anymore,” said Woodward, who teaches physical science, life science and earth science in grades 9-12 at WHS.

“Wheelersburg is in a rural setting, but we’re not really a farming community. We attack the game of football from a work standpoint. Instead of pitching hay bales and loading those tobacco wagons like we used to, I’ve got those guys moving weight and barbells and developing a work ethic through that.

“I can talk all day about the way the game of football is under attack by society, by the country as a whole. To me, it’s almost a rite of passage for kids. It’s one of the last things that’s hard, that challenges them, that puts them in the elements from hot to cold every day. Competing and being part of a unit every day, that’s what we instill in our guys here at Wheelersburg.”

Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward

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