Another high stakes tilt between Pirates, Ironmen
By PAUL BOGGS
Indeed, it’s this way with the Wheelersburg Pirates and the Jackson Ironmen once again.
Plenty of buildup, plenty of anticipation, plenty of hype, plenty of mutual respect, and plenty of ramifications following.
Oh, and absolutely don’t forget, PLENTY of computer points towards qualifying for the state playoffs awaiting the winner.
With Friday night’s annual week-five football clash between the two tradition-rich programs, there is – once again – much at stake.
This time, with Wheelersburg reviving its campaign with back-to-back victories after an 0-2 start, the Pirates travel to Jackson’s Alumni Stadium to square off against the undefeated Ironmen.
Since the renewal of this series in 2012, it has been one-sided in the win-loss column with Wheelersburg winning six of the previous seven meetings – as Jackson’s 27-0 victory in 2014 was the only exception.
That was also the last time in which the Ironmen enjoyed an undefeated regular season, as they will need to knock off the improving Pirates if they are to accomplish such a feat once again.
Kickoff inside what should be an electric Alumni Stadium in the Apple City is set for 7 p.m.
The Pirates, which lead the Ironmen in the all-time series 15-7, played Jackson – prior to 2012 – in every season from 1976 thru 1989, and actually have won 11 of the past dozen meetings.
In fact, of the last six Wheelersburg victories, the closest the Ironmen have come was a 28-7 decision four years ago.
But, as 11-year Jackson head coach – and Wheelersburg graduate – Andy Hall said on Tuesday, the Ironmen aren’t shying away from playing the powerful Pirates.
“We’re always going to play Wheelersburg. These are teams you should want your program to play every year. It’s a measuring stick for your program, and I’m sure they look at it the same way,” he said.
This season’s Pirates, following the graduation of the winningest senior class in school history that produced two state semifinal appearances and the 2017 Division V state championship, have successfully righted the ship from season-opening lopsided losses against Ironton (30-6) and Columbus Hartley (44-6).
“The last two weeks have been extremely important for our team to grow and develop,” said Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward. “We have been challenged in a number of ways defensively, offensively and in special teams and our guys have improved in all phases of the game.”
In both victories against Ashland (34-33 in overtime) and Greenup County (38-7), both Kentucky schools, the Pirates were certainly healthier – with Wheelersburg standout senior Makya Matthews the primary returnee.
Matthews, who scored the Pirates’ only points against Ironton on a 72-yard run, suffered a second-half shoulder injury in that contest – and did not play against Hartley.
He also rushed nine times for 32 yards, and was one of three Wheelersburg ballcarriers with at least that many carries and yards.
Against Greenup, Matthews carried just three times for 50 yards, but 40 of them went for Wheelersburg’s initial score just 37 seconds in.
Masters completed 7-of-13 passes for 124 yards, as Evan Horsley (10 carries for 62 yards) and Carson Williams (eight carries for 59 yards) also rushed at least three times for 50.
Woodward said the current Pirates, in replacing several standouts on the offensive side from a year ago, are just now settling nicely into their roles.
“Our guys are really starting to adjust to not only their roles, but the roles of those around them and come together as a team,” said the coach. “We continue to improve in our overall health and that in turn provides us with more depth. Practices have been fast, loose and focused, which is just what we want.”
And this week, the Pirates are expected to get senior wide receiver/defensive back Hunter Ruby back from injury.
Hall discussed Wheelersburg’s multi-dimensional offense.
“They are dangerous with several playmakers. (Makya) Matthews is the go-to guy, but these guys are just as good as some of their players of the past. They played two of the best programs in the state of Ohio in any division in Ironton and Hartley, and maybe didn’t have the experience level right away of some of the past Wheelersburg teams, but they are rolling right now. They can run it well, they can throw it well, they can line up in the spread and stretch your defense out, or they can line up in a power-I two-tight with eight men on the line and run it right down your throat which they have done to us before,” said Hall. “They have good size and speed as they always do, and we’re going to have to be at our best as far as being physical and tackling their athletes in space.”
Indeed, the 3-4 Ironmen defense – especially against the pass – must be on its ‘A’ game.
While Jackson’s run defense has been dominant, the Red and White have surrendered some passing yards, although against the Pirates those yards can’t result in points.
The Ironmen must play physical against Wheelersburg, as the Pirates will try to establish the likes of Matthews, Horsley and Williams on the ground.
“Our calling card has always been being physical. We have to be physical up front Friday, or they will try to do to us like they did in 2015 (28-7 Wheelersburg win),” said Hall. “We are not real big up front, but we have speed to get to the ball. But we can’t let them push us around.”
Expect the Ironmen to employ their ball-control, clock-consuming running attack, which has produced 1,1,27 rushing yards on 211 carries to date.
Three senior running backs – Jayden Spires (65 carries for 444 yards and six touchdowns), Brice Graham (55 carries for 300 yards and four TD) and Mitchell Johnson (35 carries for 251 yards and 2 TD) – have complimented senior quarterback Jared Icenhower, who has completed 28-of-50 passes for 269 yards and four scores.
Woodward would prefer the Pirates’ offense be on the field as much as possible, so preventing the Ironmen from offensively shortening the game will be important.
“This week’s test will again be a huge challenge for our players to rise and show more growth and maturity. Jackson has a great run game with the ability to stretch the field on the play-action pass,” he said.
Hall hailed the Pirates’ defense, which is just as strong as their offense.
“Their defensive line sheds blocks so well, their linebackers play downhill and swarm to the football, and their secondary is always making plays around the ball,” he said. “We have to be able to hold onto the ball, and we really have to eliminate penalties.”
Eliminate the penalties, cut out the turnovers, and pick up the playoff points.
With the initial release of the official Ohio High School Athletic Association computer ratings, the Ironmen are seventh in Division III, Region 11, while Wheelersburg is sixth in Division V, Region 19.
The Pirates picked up valuable points in defeating the two Kentucky clubs, which are the equivalent of OHSAA Division III programs.
Wheelersburg especially benefited from four-win Ashland’s overtime victory against Ironton, which is already a three-win program and tied for the top ranking in Region 19 with Minford.
The Fighting Tigers already own 39-and-a-half Level 2 points, and a win over the Ironmen amounts the Pirates even more.
However, Jackson can pretty much say the same thing should it defeat the Pirates, which according to some observers are favored for Friday night’s outcome.
Indeed, it’s this way with Wheelersburg and Jackson once again.
“It’s a non-league game, but so much is always at stake,” said Hall. “Regardless of record, this game is great for both programs to see where you are at.”
Wheelersburg @ Jackson Game Thread