The storylines, when a pair of coaches meet for the first time ever, are usually intriguing no matter who the teams involved may be.
However, it’s especially intriguing when it’s the season-opener — and it is as part of the Wheelersburg — Ironton rivalry that has proven to be a constant over the last three decades.
Fresh off of a state championship that cemented an undefeated 15-0 mark and allowed Wheelersburg to enjoy the greatest single season in school history en route to doing so, 11th-year head coach Rob Woodward will look to carry that momentum further against Ironton, while first-year head coach Trevon Pendleton will look to make his own splash and surprise the area in the process as his Tigers make the trek to Ed Miller Stadium to take on the Pirates on Friday evening in Wheelersburg.
While the arrival of Pendleton — a Scioto County native who starred at West and Michigan State — has certainly amped up the talks of the rivalry itself, the tradition of the contest, and the passion that it carries, is as set in stone as any rivalry affair across the Tri-State Area.
“Ironton – Wheelersburg is just one of those traditions that you mark on your calendar as the start to the high school football season here in Southern Ohio,” Woodward said. “It’s two programs that are going to go at it, and have fanbases that are really behind their teams, and it just marks what high school football is all about. (Trevon) Pendleton is a young man that is very passionate about the game of football, and he’s been very successful everywhere that he’s gone. His whole story’s been a great one. He’s going to bring a lot of passion to the young men that he’s coaching and he’ll be great for the Ironton program. I’m excited for our guys, who have worked hard, to go out and compete this Friday.”
Pendleton, however, is counting the game as 10 percent of the schedule — like all of the rest of the regular season affairs for Ironton.
“To be honest, I’m just going about it like any other game,” Pendleton said. “We’re just trying to attack it like any other game and are trying to be very detail-oriented through the little things. We’re trying to keep our eye on what we want to get accomplished, and through all of the emotions of the game, stay level-headed like any other day.”
While the formations that Ironton will run may vary, the type of football that the Fighting Tigers will play in said formations won’t change very much, especially with a loaded backfield that includes sophomore standout Reid Carrico and upperclassmen strongholds in Ethan Duncan and Seth Fosson. Hunter Humphreys (tight end) and Gage Salyers (quarterback) all return to give Ironton a strong set of skill players, and those same guys, along with Charlie Large, will play a vital role on the defensive side of the football.
Under all of the circumstances, I believe that we’ve adapted really well and played at a fast pace,” Pendleton said. “There are times on offense where we are still making young mistakes, but that comes with installing a whole new schemes and systems. Defensively, we’ve looked really good so far. Our kids are playing a bit reactive at times and not instinctive, but that’s a few times here and there. They’ve done really well for the most part, and they’ve played hard. That’s the biggest thing. They’ve played whistle-to-whistle.”
“Ironton’s always played a physical brand of football with the coaches that have been there in the past, and that won’t change, with Trevon playing the physical style that he played at West. He and his staff will bring a physicality to the game, in some basic formational sets, where they’ll work to establish the line of scrimmage. They’ve got a nice running back in (Reid) Carrico that is a big body that runs the ball hard. They’ve got a nice fullback in (Ethan) Duncan and the tight end position is solid. That’s a trademark of Ironton’s — having a good fullback, halfback, and tight end, as well as a quarterback that can disperse the football around and establish a good running game. We’ve got to be alert and look to do a good job of flying around and gang tackling. We’re going to have to get 11 hats to the football and just really be explosive on the defensive side.”
As impressive as the returning players are for Wheelersburg, it is the guys who are making new marks on the two-deep that are impressing Woodward the most with their ability to understand assignment football. Dustin Darnell, Trey Carter, Kevin Meadows, Gavin Welch, and Ethan Goode are among the upperclassmen who have made exceptional gains from 2017 to 2018.
“I talk a lot about player development in our program, but to see seniors who have been biding their time as sophomores and juniors and have been involved in the development of our entire program with their offseason work and play on the scout team, developing, stepping in, and are more advanced each year, is impressive,” Woodward said. “I feel like we’re more advanced this year, assignment-wise, than we’ve ever been with guys that are on the cusp of becoming great football players. We’ve got a lot of guys that are showing the ability to advance our program and get things started off on a good note.”
The returning starters that Wheelersburg has, however, are certainly as battle-tested as anyone in the Southeast District and the state, on both sides of the football. Offensively, the skill players around Trent Salyers — even considering the losses of Aaron Sowards, Cole Lowery, Cameron Howard, Bryson Keeney, Mack Dyer, Dominic Reyes, Seth Denney, Eli Ruby, Xander Carmichael, and Josh Henderson — still bring back over 3,300 yards of total offense to the table.
“Wheelersburg has athletes,” Pendleton said. “They’ve got several athletes that can take it to the house at any time, so you try to not necessarily key on them, but take away the things that they like to do and are successful at. They’re a very, very well-coached football team and will do a lot of the little things right. That is what separates people on Friday nights. You can tell that they are very well-coached and that they are good at what they do.”
But no matter how the staffs and personnel shake up on Friday evening from 7 p.m. forward, it all comes down to execution and gameplanning.
“I just want to see us execute,” Woodward said. “Tom Kaskey does a great job of putting together a gameplan for us to succeed on the offensive side of the football with pushing the tempo, making sure that were balanced between the run and the pass, and stretching the field both vertically and horizontally. We just need to execute and make sure that we take care of the football, but at the same time, our linemen have got to work and make sure that we’re controlling the line of scrimmage, and really come off the football with an attitude and create those holes. We can really put a lot of pressure on opposing teams. I want to see our offense come out and execute. Also, I want to see the tackling that our team displays. Over the last couple of years, our tackling’s been outstanding, and last year’s was certainly the best that I’ve seen as a football coach. I want our guys to bring the same level of flying to the football, wrapping up, and being accountable for being in the right position when the plays need to be made.”
“One thing that I believe wholeheartedly — and something that separates a good team from a great team — is just handling adversity. We’re going to be going into a hostile environment. Just handling all the emotions, and never getting too high or too low, is important. We need to stay even-keeled, let the emotions of the game play out, not get too wrapped up in the moment, and play every snap.”