The rematch: Minford, ‘Burg meet again after epic OT duel
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By Paul Boggs
Usually, the sequel is not as good — and just doesn’t live up to the hype — of the original.
For the visiting Minford Falcons and host Wheelersburg Pirates, let’s just hope they can buck that trend.
That’s because, for the second time this season, the two Scioto County and Southern Ohio Conference Division II rivals meet on the gridiron — only this time the encore takes place inside Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg in a Division V, Region 19 quarterfinal tilt.
Both squads are 7-3, as kickoff is set for Saturday night at 7 p.m. — inside what should be an amped-up, and overflow, Ed Miller Stadium.
Wheelersburg, winning the outright SOC II championship for the sixth straight season, is hosting a regional quarterfinal for the eighth consecutive campaign.
The Orange and Black battled back from an uncharacteristic 2-3 start, which included three setbacks to teams with a combined staggering record of 28-2.
Also unusual for the tradition-rich and proud Pirate program was only having four regular-season home bouts, so a playoff affair for a fifth was a positive consequence.
“We’re just extremely proud of our senior group and what they’ve been able to accomplish this year in a gauntlet of a schedule. We knew it was going to be a tough 10-game stretch for us. As it has shaken out, we had the eighth-toughest schedule in Division V in the entire state. We lost to three teams with a combined record of 28-2. But our seniors have never doubted anything or wavered.
Head Coach Rob Woodard
- Current Team
The Pirates captured the third seed in Region 19, while the Falcons — which are making their first playoff appearance since 2012 — swooped in for the sixth seed.
Minford fell from fourth to ninth in the Region 19 computer rankings following back-to-back defeats against Oak Hill and at Waverly, and needed not onlyto defeat Valley in the regular-season finale — but also an Oak Hill loss to Waverly.
The Falcons got both, as fourth-year head coach Jesse Ruby returns to the playoffs, as he served on the staff of multiple Minford playoff appearances from 2007 thru 2010 — and again in 2012.
“Our kids came out and accomplished a lot of the things we want to accomplish. We played really good football for a stretch in the first half of the year. There are always moments you look back in the season and wish you would have done better, but overall, I think the team is happy with how their season went,” said Ruby, in an interview on Tuesday. “Being back in the playoffs again is something we don’t take for granted. To get to this point, it doesn’t happen as frequently as you would like for it to. It really means something to make the playoffs in football. It’s important to play and defeat quality opponents, and play your best football each week.”
Speaking of 2012, it was the year before that when the Pirates last missed the postseason, as their now 31st appearance sits sixth for most all-time in Ohio High School Athletic Association history.
Wheelersburg is 38-28 all-time in the tournament, while Minford — making its ninth all-time appearance — is 3-8.
One of those eight losses was to Wheelersburg, as the two teams faced off in the regional quarterfinals of 2008 — with Wheelersburg winning 14-6.
Last season, the Pirates played Portsmouth West in both the regular-season and SOC II finale — and then again in the Region 19 quarterfinals.
For Woodward, winding down his 12th season as the Pirates’ head coach and 17th in the program, was asked about playing the same squad twice in one year.
It’s happened with Ironton twice in fact, in both 2014 and 2015, in which Wheelersburg won the playoff matchup 38-7 after defeating the Fighting Tigers in the annual season opener.
Now, it’s Minford’s two-times turn again.
“I always tell our guys control the things we can control, and that is putting ourselves in the best situation that we can. Whomever our opponent is, we’re going to have to go out and prepare for like anyone else,” said Woodward. “Our guys were just excited to get that home playoff game. Minford is going to be a tough opponent, and playoff football is playoff football. You have to be ready to go each and every week.”
It’s safe to say, though, that the Falcons are licking their chops for a second shot at the ‘Burg.
In their week-six meeting at Minford, as the then-undefeated Falcons welcomed Wheelersburg that was perhaps viewed as most vulnerable, the Pirates pulled off an epic 21-20 overtime triumph — stopping the Falcons’ two-point conversion attempt after Minford’s Matthew Risner reached out and made an acrobatic over-the-shoulder touchdown catch for the 21-20 deficit.
With that victory, Wheelersburg won its 22nd consecutive SOC II game — en route to another championship and a 26-game league winning streak which will carry over into next season.
It was an electric, standing-room-only, and super-hyped atmosphere at Minford High School, and it was a game in which every play pretty much mattered in the outcome.
It started on the game’s fourth play, in which Minford standout running back Ty Wiget — with wide-open running room — was five yards away from a 52-yard touchdown dart.
But Wheelersburg’s primary playmaker, Makya Matthews, made probably the Pirates’ play of the season — sprinting and chasing down Wiget at the 5-yard line and tomahawk-chopping the football loose and into the end zone.
The Pirates recovered for a touchback, essentially saving their season in the process.
Both teams hit for long touchdown passes to Matthews (76 yards in the the quarter) and Risner (59 yards in the third quarter), but a 67-yard scoring strike to Risner from Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis was negated on a holding penalty.
Ruby said the mistakes Minford made against the Pirates pertained not to scheme, but to execution.
Head Coach Jesse Ruby
- Current Team
Of course, not getting the two-point conversion attempt — which would have given Minford its first win over Wheelersburg since 2009 — still stings with the Falcons to this very day.
Thus, Minford’s motivation for a rematch goes without saying.
“The initial sting of losing that night bothered our kids. But reflecting back at it, I felt like our kids felt pretty good about the way they played that game. They definitely would love to have an opportunity to do it again. To see if they can make it a different result,” said Ruby. “I think they are very excited about the situation we have.”
But while the Falcons have whom they want, the Pirates are indeed a different team than from six weeks ago.
It was in that game, in fact, in which Wheelersburg went with senior Evan Horsley at quarterback for good — as he replaced an ineffective Aaron Masters in the second quarter.
Horsley hooked up with Matthews for a 76-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 Pirate lead, as Horsley had three completions on seven attempts that night — while rushing for 92 yards on 14 carries.
Since then, the Pirates have scored at least 41 points in their final four games — including 55 at Oak Hill, as Horsley has rushed for 429 yards and five TDs on 76 carries.
As a passer, he has completed 31-of-53 for 58-percent, amassing 601 yards and nine scores.
Woodward said Horsley has evolved the Pirate offense from a simpler package of plays against the Falcons until now, as these Pirates are more run-oriented.
In Wheelersburg’s 42-28 triumph over Waverly, Matthews carried 29 times for 267 yards and a hat trick of scores — while wide receiver Hunter Ruby ran several jet sweeps.
“At that time (Minford game), we were evaluating things, and knew what Evan (Horsley) could bring to the table,” said Woodward. “We felt we needed to make that switch at that time. We were able to utilize a small set of plays that we had repped with him there, but since that time, we’ve really been able to expand on what we’re able to do. Evan brings such a leadership and commanding presence at the quarterback position. He is a threat to run, he recognizes how plays are meant to be executed and where to go with the football. And if it doesn’t, he does a great job of checking down and improvising and continuing to make sure positive yards are gained on a given play. That offensive consistency has taken pressure off our defense, allowing them to be more attacking and aggressive, which is definitely what we strive to be and play better at.”
Coach Ruby concurred that Horsley brings a greater running element to the Pirate offense.
“Evan Horsley is such a good runner. Now he has the ball in his hands every play. It just makes them more dynamic in the way they can attack you, given his skill sets,” he said. “His ability to run the ball, especially in the middle, off a fake to Matthews running outside or things of that nature really poses a threat to a defense. Our kids have to be able to read their assignment and not get caught looking in the backfield.”
The Pirates have big-play ability as do the fast Falcons, who can quickly strike with the likes of Vogelsong-Lewis, Wiget, Risner and Drew Skaggs.
Wiget rushed 25 times for 143 yards against Wheelersburg, while Vogelsong-Lewis completed 8-of-12 passes for 143 yards.
For the season, Vogelsong-Lewis has thrown for 1,429 yards and 16 scores on 82-of-151, while rushing for 708 and seven TDs on 114 carries.
Wiget has amassed 1,358 yards and 18 touchdowns on 197 attempts, while catching 16 passes for 156 yards out of the backfield.
Risner with 557 yards and seven touchdowns and Skaggs with 467 yards and six scores have 25 receptions apiece.
“They are spreading the ball around to more guys, so we have to make sure we account for them, but we know that Ty Wiget and (Elijah) Vogelsong-Lewis are threats to score on any given play,” said Woodward. “They have a lot of speed that we are well-aware of.”
But Ruby believes better ball control against Wheelersburg “would help” his offense out.
“We have been a big-strike offense. We’ve always had the ability to score from anywhere on the field with our speed and in a variety of ways,” he said. “But we have to improve on being able to sustain drives and convert on third down, and have the mentality that we need to get four yards on every play and not 50. So we can continue to move the chains and eat up some of the clock. Wheelersburg is similar to us in that they have a lot of fast players, they can score very quickly, and they have big-play potential. If you can limit their possessions, it can work to your advantage.”
Although, while possessions may or may not be limited, it’s highly likely there will be more of unlimited hype.
After all, the two schools are an estimated 15 minutes apart — and play each other once-a-year in already a high-stakes regular-season match.
Throw in Saturday night being a playoff game…and we can only hope that the sequel is better than the original.
“It’s a playoff game, plus it’s a game in which the first meeting was decided by one point in overtime. People in and around the area want to see how this game is going to go again,” said Ruby. “It’s hard for me to express to our players how big I think this game is going to be. If you thought the first game was big, this one will be twice as much.”
And, all that HAS to happen is the winning team be at least one point better than the losing club.
“Even if it’s one point again, the key focus we have is to have fun playing the game, feed off of each other’s energy, and go out and win in advance. In the playoffs, you have to do everything you can to execute and do the things you need to do, regardless of the opponent. Everybody plays in the playoffs with a heightened energy, with a heightened level of play,” said Woodward. “We have to understand that we’ve got five rungs on the ladder that we want to work to climb. Our guys are doing a great job of preparing for that this week.”