Fighting Tigers welcome Wellston in Region 19 quarters
By Paul Boggs
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If Ironton is — or even was — on a so-called “revenge tour” for 2019, it accomplished its initial goal.
That was winning the Ohio Valley Conference championship, as the talented and highly-touted Fighting Tigers turned aside seven squads en route to rolling through the league.
But now, of course, Ironton indeed — admittedly — has higher accomplishments in mind, such as capturing the Division V Region 19 championship…and even eyeing a state title.
The first step in the second season of its “tour de revenge” takes place on Saturday inside the friendly confines of Ironton’s Tanks Memorial Stadium — when Wellston makes the trek down winding Route 93 for a regional quarterfinal.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., on what will surely be a cold — but electric — night in Ironton.
The 9-1 Fighting Tigers are the top-seeded club in Region 19 — having steamrolled their final two games to not only win the OVC outright, but also assure themselves of favorable siting for the remaining two regional tilts.
The state playoffs are obviously overly-familiar for the Fighting Tiger program, as its now 35 all-time appearances are tied for second-most in Ohio High School Athletic Association history with Cincinnati Moeller.
Only Newark Catholic, with 36 including this year, leads Moeller and Ironton.
The Fighting Tigers are 45-32 all-time in the tournament, as they have reached the state championship game eight times — while winning titles in 1979 and 1989.
Ironton indeed is viewed as a massive favorite for Saturday night’s outcome, as the 7-3 and eighth-seeded Golden Rockets are making just their third all-time playoff appearance — with the others being in 2004 and 2006.
Ironton head coach Trevon Pendleton, completing his second season, said his Fighting Tigers take every opponent seriously — and explained that last year’s finish fuels fire for motivation this time around.
The Tigers lost their final three games to end at 6-5, including the Region 19 quarterfinal at top-seeded and eventual state runner-up Johnstown-Monroe.
Wellston went 7-3 in its previous playoff campaigns, as it then lost handily in regional quarterfinals to teams near Wheeling (40-6 at Bellaire in 2004 and 41-0 at Martins Ferry).
Some observers believe that this year’s result at Ironton could be along those lines…or even worse.
While Wellston first-year head coach Mike Smith knows his Golden Rockets are overwhelming underdogs, they have approached this entire season as such.
“When we (Wellston coaching staff) came here, we walked into a situation blind, and we didn’t really know what to expect. We found out that we have a few nice athletes, we started putting some things together, and one thing has led to another. These kids have really bought into everything we’ve asked them to do,” said Smith. “We’re absolutely tickled to death to be in the playoffs, and it’s been a while since the first two. We’re not even supposed to be here. So we have absolutely nothing to lose, and we’re going to go down there and play as hard as we can and see what happens.”
The Blue and Gold’s turnaround includes going from 3-7 last year to 7-3 this year, and going into its week-10 rivalry game at Vinton County with a chance to play for a share of the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division championship.
Part of that was a six-game winning streak in the middle of the season, as all three losses (Jackson in Division III, Athens in Division III and Vinton County in Division IV) were against larger schools.
The Golden Rockets sport just six seniors, spearheaded by four-year starter Rylan Molihan (5-9, 170, sr.), who has rushed for 1,160 yards and 11 touchdowns on 160 carries.
Hunter Smith — a six-foot, five-inch, 170-pound junior — has 31 receptions for 469 yards and nine touchdowns.
But Ironton’s impressive, even elite, first-team defense has not allowed more than one touchdown in regulation time in any one game all season.
Ashland, in the Fighting Tigers’ lone setback, scored in overtime to prevail 16-10.
Offensively, in the regular season, Reid Carrico carried 172 times for 13 yards shy of 1,000, and caught 13 passes for 312 yards.
Gage Salyers, the senior quarterback, has completed 57 passes on 110 attempts for 1,173 yards and nine touchdowns — two of which last week went for 69 and 67.
“When you look at Ironton on film, you try to find a weakness, or maybe somewhere that you can attack offensively, but they are very solid. Both defensively and offensively,” said Smith. “They don’t make mistakes. They don’t turn the ball over. They play a very well-rounded solid football game. We are going to have to play our best game to have a chance.”
Smith said it would aid the Golden Rockets’ cause if they can force an early turnover or two and score off a short field — or even benefit from any significant penalties in which Ironton has been whistled for at times.
“We’re going to have to get a turnover, maybe a kickoff return, maybe a punt return, something that builds some momentum,” he said. “They just have a really good team. Their backs are good, their quarterback is good, their offensive line is good, their defense is good. They don’t do anything fancy, everything is just well-executed and well-coached. They are bigger than we are, and if we don’t tackle well or aren’t in position to make plays and stop the run, then they are going to run over us. It’s going to be a tough job. Ironton is just a really nice team.”
That is, or even was, on a so-called “revenge tour” for 2019.
That second season starts Saturday night.