Tigers, Pirates meet in huge SE Ohio showdown
By PAUL BOGGS
Photo’s by Ruth Boll
If you believe a lot of what you hear, then this season is surely the Waverly Tigers’ best opportunity – maybe ever – at a victory against the Wheelersburg Pirates.
But also, if you believe what you actually see, then you can’t miss the fact that these Pirates are perhaps peaking at exactly the perfect time.
Indeed, the inside track to the 2019 Southern Ohio Conference Division II championship – and a truckload of OHSAA playoff computer points – awaits the winner on Friday night, as the Tigers travel to Wheelersburg for what has to be the most amped and hyped-up matchup between these two proud programs in recent memory.
One thing is for sure – it’s gotta be considered “the game of the week” throughout all of Southeastern Ohio.
Kickoff inside what should be an electric – and even overflow – Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg is set for 7 p.m.
The Tigers are 6-1 while the Pirates are 4-3, but Wheelersburg has certainly righted its ship after an 0-2 and 2-3 start – while Waverly rides a four-game winning streak.
Both squads are 2-0 in the SOC II, but the Pirates carry with them a now 23-game division win streak into Friday night.
And don’t worry about that excess of Orange and Black, because basically everyone inside Ed Miller Stadium – minus the obvious neutral observers – will be donning those colors.
Yeah, you can say this is a big ballgame in the late stages of the season – especially when both clubs “control their own destiny” towards a state playoff berth.
Of course, both coaches – in interviews over the telephone this week – tried to emphasize the importance of not blowing the buildup out of proper proportion.
“We know who we are playing this week, but whether it is Wheelersburg this week or Minford next week or Oak Hill in week 10, we still have to go out and execute a gameplan to win the game,” said Waverly coach Chris Crabtree. “You can’t get all caught up and lost in who we are playing. We just need to do what we have to do, and be confident that we will go down there and have success. (Wheelersburg coach) Rob (Woodward) and his staff always do a tremendous job from one year to the next there, and they don’t rebuild, they just reload. They will try to get the ball in Makya Matthews’ hands and we know they play great defense. It’s still going to come down for us and our ability to not make mistakes, make plays on offense and be able to tackle well in space on defense.”
Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward was also asked about the SOC II championship chase – and the playoff push that this week’s bout brings about.
“Those things of course exist, but all we can do is control the things we can control on the field when playing Waverly this week,” he said. “The playoff points and how those shake out, we can’t worry about that. We just have to focus on a good week of practice and preparation – both physically and mentally – for a good Waverly team that is coming in here on Friday with every intention of beating us. They have a lot of good athletes, a lot of speed, a lot of weapons who are dangerous when the football is their hands. Our kids know what’s at stake, but they also know they need to focus on the things we need to work on to hopefully help us get another win.”
One thing that is different for the Pirates this week – they are finally back in the friendly confines of Ed Miller Stadium.
They’ve been on the road for the past month, and won three of four games to reverse the early-season slide, including that epic SOC II opener in overtime (21-20) at Minford two weeks ago.
“It is nice to be back at home, where we’ve been on the road for a while,” said Woodward. “Ed Miller Stadium should be rocking and that should only help elevate our kids’ play. There is always a lot of energy there that our kids feed off of. It’s exciting to be home.”
However, what Wheelersburg did discover during its lengthy road show was that Evan Horsley is indeed its starting quarterback.
In the second half and overtime against the Falcons, he engineered two go-ahead scoring drives – and rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
Last week, he followed that up at Oak Hill by completing 7-of-9 passes for 150 yards – three of which went to Matthews for 82.
Horsley hit Matthews for a 44-yard scoring strike in the second stanza, after connecting with Hunter Ruby for a 50-yard touchdown in the opening quarter.
Horsley also rushed four times for 56 yards, scoring on three of them, including from 43 yards out in the second period.
Woodward said Horsley was last a regular quarterback as a freshman backup, but that injuries and other circumstances made the coaching staff decide that he was the best young man for the job.
“The key for us offensively has been taking care of the football, and Evan (Horsley) has been making good decisions,” said the coach. “Evan can make plays throwing the ball, but when the passing play breaks down, he knows to take off and use his feet. But most importantly, he takes good care of the football for us. We worked him into the rotation with the injuries we had to other guys at the start of the year, and he has handled it with such maturity.”
Crabtree said Horsley playing quarterback only adds to an already multi-dimensional and complex Pirate offense that is difficult to slow down – let alone stop.
“They throw so much at you. Especially in different formations and packages. They try to ouflank you with so many formations and plays. Now you have Horsley who gives them another dimension of running the ball from the quarterback position,” said Crabtree. “Then of course Matthews is a playmaker like we haven’t seen. Whether they line him up at running back, at wide receiver, in motion, in the slot, they are going find ways to get him the ball. They will take their shots downfield too, because they have other good receivers as well.”
Crabtree contends that his Tigers must be physical up front with Wheelersburg, but must also be able to tackle the likes of Matthews in space – and eliminate the Pirates’ playmaking ability.
“They can burn you with big plays, especially Makya (Matthews),” he said. “We can’t let them hit us for so many big plays like they have the capability to do so. We need to play physical, but we also need to play fast, and part of that is getting to the football and making tackles.”
Meanwhile, Woodward said the Tigers have their own playmaker in running back and kick returner Payton Shoemaker.
Of the Tigers’ 225 total carries this season, Shoemaker (5-9, 155, Sr.) has 168 – while rushing for 1,466 yards and 19 touchdowns, which is good for almost nine yards per tote.
He has also returned seven punts for 63 yards, and 10 kickoffs for 224.
His all-purpose yardage totals nearly 1,900 (1,861 yards), which is an average of 266 yards per game.
While Waverly operates out of the spread-the-field attack – and quarterback Haydn’ Shanks has completed 74-of-118 passes for 1,120 yards and 13 touchdowns with only one interception – it is indeed Shoemaker that has Woodward most concerned.
- Haydn Shanks
- Current Team
- SEO, SOC2
- 2019, 2020
“Payton Shoemaker is the key to their offense, and he is really a threat to score at any time,” he said. “They have the (Haydn’) Shanks kid at quarterback and two really good receivers in (Phoenix) Wolf and (Will) Futhey, but Shoemaker’s running ability sets up their passing game. They like to use their athletes and spread the ball around, but it starts first with Shoemaker, so we need to account for him and make sure we are getting guys around him.”
With the exception of their 41-14 week-three four-turnover and injury-riddled loss against Unioto, the Tigers have scored at least 30 points in every game, including a second-highest for season-high 48 against Amanda-Clearcreek.
Waverly remains, in fact, the 6-1 Aces’ only defeat for the year.
Amanda-Clearcreek is in Wheelersburg’s playoff region – Region 19 of Division V – as the Pirates (12.0071 computer points average) improved to third following their 55-0 shutout at Oak Hill.
Meanwhile, Waverly (13.1286) is third in Region 15 of Division IV – after three years of qualifying for the playoffs in the Cincinnati-heavy Region 16.
The Tigers, should they make the postseason again, should compete better against teams closer to this side of U.S. Route 23.
Waverly does, however, need to start competing much better against the Pirates, which have won every meeting in this series since 2007 – by a whopping scoring average of 43-8 that includes four shutouts.
In fact, last year (Wheelersburg won 49-0 in 2018) was one of those.
Crabtree contends that this season can be different against the Pirates.
And, on paper, it appears to be the Tigers’ best opportunity in at least a decade-and-a-half.
“We have a lot of experience, and I think being in this situation before where we haven’t performed as well against Wheelersburg has helped us learn for this year,” said Crabtree. “We know what Wheelersburg is and has been, and it’s always a very tough place to play. But our kids are going in there confident that if we take care of the football, we execute our gameplan and we make the plays we need to make, we will give ourselves a chance.”
For the Pirates, it’s just another important encounter for a tradition-rich program that has seen so many – especially in the SOC II.
“Our kids’ first goal is to win the league, and we know we get everybody’s best shot” said Woodward. “We prepare physically and mentally for this game like any other. We absolutely respect every opponent we play, and we do all the things from the start of the week until the end of the week to get us ready to play on Friday.”