For the first time since winning the regional in 2006, the Bellaire Big Reds are members of the Ohio High School Athletic Association's football playoffs.
The coaches and division are different, but the feeling and excitement hasn't changed at all as the 8-2 Big Reds prepare to make a nearly 3-hour trip to suburban Cleveland to tangle with Cuyahoga Heights in a Division V, Region 17 quarterfinal Saturday evening.
"It's a really great feeling to be in," said Bellaire head coach Jose Davis. "Our kids have worked hard and deserve this chance. It's definitely been a process and we're happy with how it's gone."
While the Big Reds are certainly tickled to be in the field, Davis and his trusted coaching staff won't allow their team to become satisfied.
"After we got back from Ferry on Friday, one of the things I made sure I told the kids that we accomplished one goal, enjoy it, but we've got to get back to work on Monday," Davis said. "Our motto hasn't changed. We still want to be 1-0 this week."
Getting the Big Reds back on the ground was a challenge since they're coming off their first victory against arch-rival Martins Ferry in five years. The Big Reds edged the Purple Riders, 34-28, in overtime to bring SPARKY back to the All-American Village.
"Our kids found something deep down inside of them and kept plugging away and fighting," Davis said. "When you're able to do that, good things can happen and they did for us."
While there's an excitement in the school and community about both the playoffs and victory against the Purple Riders, Davis is working hard to keep things as normal as possible this week because it's still a work week.
"It's a lot different for me with all of the different things going on, so we have to get the Is dotted and the Ts crossed," Davis said. "But, for the kids, we want to keep things as we've done the first 10 weeks. Having as normal of practices as we can is huge for us. We have to keep the routine the same."
The Big Reds will be making their third straight roadtrip since closing the home portion of their schedule in Week 8 against Union Local. But trips to Edison and Martins Ferry are nothing compared to busing to northeast Ohio.
"We want to make the kids as comfortable as possible on the way up there, so we're looking at charter buses," Davis said. "It's a long trip, but we have to make the best of it and it sure beats the alternative of not being in the playoffs."
Once he saw the official pairings, Davis began researching not only the Redskins, but also their facilities. Ralph P. Adams Stadium is the venue and it features artificial turf, but there's seating on only one side of the stadium. It'll be the Big Reds' fourth time on turf this season.
"When I found out they had turf, it lifted a huge weight off my shoulders especially with how wet it's been all week," Davis said. "Knowing that field conditions won't be an issue is big for us."
When the Big Reds began reviewing tapes and scouting reports on the Redskins, they noticed some similarities in themselves.
Cuyahoga Heights is in the playoffs for the 16th time in its history and owns a 13-15 post-season record. The Redskins finished the campaign 9-1 and their only blemish was a 40-7 burial at the hands of defending state champion and Region 17 top seed Kirtland in Week five.
The Redskins own victories against four teams that finished with better than .500 records, including Berlin Center Western Reserve, which will meet Shadyside in the opening round of the Region 21 tournament.
The Redskins operate out of a spread formation primarily, but according to Davis, he's seen them show a wing formation as well.
"We're similar, but they're probably a little bit more balanced than we are," Davis said. "They don't throw it nearly as much as we do, but I am really impressed with their team speed and the grittiness that they play with. They're not huge size wise, but they do play hard and get after it."
The offense for the Redskins is triggered by senior quarterback Jordan Martin. He's completed 116-of-176 passes for 1,699 yards and 22 touchdowns. He's also the team's leading rusher with 386 yards and six touchdowns.
"The quarterback makes them go," Davis said. "He gets everyone in position to where they need to be and runs things really well. He's also their free safety on defense, so he's the quarterback on both sides of the ball."
Like Bellaire, Cuyahoga Heights spreads the wealth in the passing game. Tyler Gallo is the leading receiver with 41 catches for 521 yards and eight touchdowns. Jason Kleppl has made 23 receptions and Jack Alpert has 20 for 404 yards and seven touchdowns. Trent Gallo has made 18 receptions for 252 yards and three scores.
"Their receiving is by committee," Davis said. "He spreads it around really well. It's going to be a challenge for us, but we're in the playoffs now and there are no easy games from here on out."
Complementing Martin in the ground game is Shane McNeilly. He has 76 attempts for 316 yards.
The Bellaire defense has risen to the occassion several times this season, including in overtime last Friday when it recovered a fumble to stop the Riders from scoring.
The Big Reds are allowing 28 points a game and 373 yards of total offense.
"The kids are buying in to what we're trying to do defensively," Davis said. "It's been a process, but the kids are getting better and better. We're using a different defense than what we started the season with, so it's been a process. The fact how we've gotten better is really encouraging."
Bellaire's defense is led by inside linebacker Nick Maffe, who's made 83 tackles, including 70 solo stops. Logan Koshenka is the other inside linebacker with 60.5 tackles.
The outside linebackers have been a rotation of Kenny Hess, Abhay Horvath and Austin McConville.
The defensive line has been stout with defensive tackles Dalton Conroy and Robbie Kalinowski anchoring the front. The ends are Wyatt Back and Ryan Callarik.
The Big Reds' secondary is comprised of Brendon Ross, Nick Patrone and Quinton Crosby.
The Big Reds' offense has been playing like a well-oiled machine as they excute the spread, no-huddle attack at a high level, scoring almost 32 points a game, and amassing almost 385 yards a game.
"We've seen that Cuyahoga Heights is very aggressive on defense," Davis said. "We have to find a way to slow them down. They use a lot of different looks and blitz a lot. We have to be disciplined and know our assignments inside and out."
Junior quarterback Spencer Badia makes the Big Reds' offense go. He's completed 193 of his 357 passes for an impressive 2,736 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Five different Big Reds' receivers have at least 24 catches this season. Patrone leads the way with 59 receptions for 875 yards and seven touchdowns. Crosby has 36 catches for 538 yards and five scores; Hess has made 30 receptions for 461 yards and four scores; sophomore Hunter Westlake has caught 29 passes for 470 yards and four touchdowns; and Maffe has 24 receptions for 258 yards and two scores.
When the Big Reds run the ball, Maffe has become the go-to-guy. He's ran 81 times for 485 yards and eight touchdowns.
Bellaire's offensive line has been strength with Callarik, Jonathan Carter, Cody LaRoche, Vince Kolenich and Back.
The Big Reds certainly have a strength in the kicking game with Conroy, who is 32-of-37 on PATs and has a school record nine field goals with a long of 43 yards. He hit a game-winner against Harrison Central at the buzzer.
The winner of Saturday's game will face the survivor of second-seeded Garaway and seventh-seeded Youngstown Ursuline in the regional semifinals at a neutral site.