The St. Clairsville Red Devils have been issued few challenges through the course of the first 11 weeks of the prep football season.
They realize, however, that there are now only 16 teams in Division IV still playing, which means the games become bigger, more meaningful and more challenging.
Head Coach Brett McLean and his staff spent significant time this week making sure their players continue to realize that what they've accomplished in the past has little bearing on this week or the future.
T-L Photos/MIKE PALMER
ST. CLAIRSVILLE junior running back Jaylon Brown has been one of the Red Devils’ sparkplugs all season. He’s ran for better than 1,300 yards and scored more than 30 touchdowns this season. Brown and the Red Devils will trek to Logan Friday night to meet Piketon in the Region 15 semifinals.
"We're proud of where we are," McLean stressed. "But, now, we need to go on the road and see how we size up against good competition from other parts of the state."
The road trip - literally and figuratively - begins Friday evening when the 11-0 Red Devils make a better than 2-hour trip to Chieftan Stadium in Logan to tangle with the 9-2 Redstreaks of Piketon in the Region 15 semifinals.
"We handled playing a next-door neighbor school (Harrison Central) well last week and we've got to get ready for an uncommon opponent now," McLean said. "This group of kids has a strong desire and goal to get out and prove it can be successful against uncommon opponents."
The Red Devils, who are in their ninth playoff appearance in school history, will be dealing with a Redstreaks' squad that is coming off its first-ever playoff victory after it went on the road and avenged an earlier setback at Minford, 49-27.
"To get that first (playoff) win was huge for our kids, community and school," said Piketon head coach Tyler Gullion, who is in his 10th season at the helm of his alma mater. "There's definitely an excitement this week to still be practicing and preparing for the next challenge."
Piketon's only other playoff appearance came in 1997 and it was eliminated by Bellaire in the opening round at Zanesville's Sulsberger Memorial Stadium.
St. Clairsville, meanwhile, is in the regional semifinal for the second straight season. It was eliminated by Coshocton last season and immediately set the goal to advance beyond this round for this season.
"We want to keep moving forward," McLean said. "We had a good year last year, but we want to improve on it, continue to get better and go further and further in the playoffs. Our goal is to keep advancing."
The winner of Friday's game will meet the survivor of Ironton and Johnstown-Monroe, who are meeting in the other Region 15 semifinals at The Plains High School in Athens. The site for the regional final won't be known until Sunday afternoon.
Another strong message that McLean aimed to get across this week was the need to remain hungry.
"We've cracked down on the kids to make sure we're not becoming fat and happy," McLean said. "We've got to focus on our business and work hard to prepare for Piketon. We can't afford to let our guard down. We set some big goals and have had high expectations. We're getting to that point of the season where those goals can hopefully become reality, but we have to be sharp as a group and play well every week."
To be quite blunt, the Red Devils have yet to be challenged. They've averaging almost 50 points a week and there have been no signs of slowing down, including last week's 41-6 victory.
St. Clairsville has only trailed once at the half all season and that was 11 weeks ago today against Wheeling Park in the season opener.
The use of the big play was so evident on the tapes the Piketon staff reviewed, they decided to do some impromptu charting just to see how much the Devils do rely on the big play ability.
"On the tapes we looked at, I think we charted 14 of their 20 drives were five plays or less," Gullion said. "Our main objective this week is to limit the big plays. We're not going to stop them, but we have to at least slow them down. They're scoring plays come in big chunks much of the time, so we have to be disciplined."
When asked who stood on for the Devils' offensively, Gullion answered quite honestly, "everyone's good."
The ability for St. C. to spread the ball around to so many different players is what's made them such a dangerous combine all season because there's not one guy that a defensive can scheme to take away.
"Our team has such great chemistry because all of the kids are unselfish and such good friends that it's almost scary at times," McLean said. "They never let any selfishness get in the way of their friendships and they bust their butts for each other. We've been able to protect them from any outside influences and they realize that football is the ultimate team sport and for us to be successful as a group, it comes down to unselfishness."
Name the skill player for the Red Devils and he's probably had a big game at some point this season. So, it comes down to will it be Matt Kinnick? Or Jaylon Brown? Or Dan Monteroso? Or Jerrid Marhefka? Or Michael Ferns? Or someone totally different?
"That's the problem," Gullion said. "There's not just one kid you can focus on. During the regular season, most weeks, you go into a game knowing if you stop one kid, you'll have an advantage, but with St. Clairsville, you have to stop four at least and that's what causes you so many problems."
Kinnick triggers the attack at the quarterback spot. He's coming off a brilliant performance against Harrison Central in which he misfired on just three of 14 pass attempts for 291 yards.
For the season, the Red Devils' field general has completed 96-of-152 for 2,071 yards and 28 touchdowns. His efficiency is even more impressive when you consider he's been picked off just twice.
Brown, meanwhile, serves as the top option out of the backfield. The junior jet, who runs with more power than people probably realize, has carried the ball 134 times for 1,379 yards and 27 touchdowns. All told, he's scored 32 touchdowns. He's also caught 11 passes for 273 yards and three scores.
On the perimeter, the Devils feature Monteroso. The Boston College commit leads the receiving corps with 45 catches for 960 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Marhefka, who played much of the season with basically one hand as he recovered from an injury he sustained against Wheeling Park, has caught 16 passes for 383 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Ferns, who is just a junior and has already committed to the University of Michigan, lines up in a bevy of positions for the Red Devils. He sees time at fullback and tight end and is a viable runner and pass catcher. He's ran for 260 yards and 3 scores. He's caught 10 balls for 198 yards and 4 more touchdowns.
"Their speed and how diverse they are offensively is really impressive," Gullion said. "It's a pick your poison type of thing because they're so well balanced with run and pass."
While the skill people get much of the hype surrounding the Devils, McLean is always quick to point out the work done in the trenches by a veteran and talented offensive line.
Senior Cole Stephen anchors the front at center. He's flanked by junior Joel Giffin, senior Corey Ernest, senior Tom Parker and junior Nick VanVoltenburg. Jay Gossett is the team's tight end.
"We're always telling our line how much we appreciate what they've done and how they've played," McLean said. "We've been fortunate, too, because we've started the same five kids up front all season. There were some question marks on how good our line would be before the season, but those kids have really responded and come through. Plus, we've developed some depth there, which is big because the playoffs are like a war of attrition."
The Piketon defense operates from a 4-3 scheme and is led by junior linebacker Jeremy Farmer, who has 103 tackles. Colten William is a talented pass rusher with 14 sacks and 70 tackles. Dakota Sparks has logged 61 tackles, while Derrick Haymons has notched 43 tackles.
"They're a very physical defense much like a lot of the teams in southeast Ohio," McLean said. "We've played other teams from that area and they'll hit the crap out of you. We don't expect anything less from Piketon. The Farmer kid is an animal at linebacker, the ends are good who are very athletic."
On the offensive side of the ball, the Red Devils have gotten the feeling - scheme wise - that they're looking in a mirror somewhat.
From what McLean's gathered about the Redstreaks' offense, they're eerily similar in regards to spreading the offensive wealth and extremely balanced between the run and pass.
"Piketon is a senior dominated team," McLean said. "I think they've only got one non-senior starter on both sides of the ball. They're really similar to us because they've got five to six playmakers both in the passing game and running game."
Quarterback Isaac Brabson has put together an impressive campaign for the Redstreaks. He's completing 64 percent of his passes and has logged 2,309 yards and thrown 21 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He's also a talented runner with 77 carries for 506 yards and six touchdowns.
"We work in the shotgun, use no huddle and like to spread it out," Gullion said. "It's a quarterback-driven offense, but we've got a lot of kids we can use, so we're similar to St. Clairsville in that regard."
When Brabson goes to the air, he utilizes a bevy of receivers. Four Piketon receivers have caught more than 25 passes.
The leader is senior Evan Ferguson with 48 grabs for 625 yards and six touchdowns. William is the big-play threat with 38 receptions for 731 yards and 9 touchdowns. He's averaging 19.2 yards a catch. Craig Bowman has caught 32 passes for 304 yards and Farmer has made 27 catches for 454 yards and three scores.
On the ground, Stephen Royster is the leader with 133 carries for 769 yards and nine touchdowns. Farmer has ran for six touchdowns as has Cameron Waddell.
"Piketon is able to get it done offensively with a lot of kids," McLean said. "We know they have a good team and we have a lot of respect for them."
The Red Devils' defense has been a bend, but don't break kind of outfit much of the season. They've greatly improved in all facets on the defensive side this season, especially against the run.
"I think there are a lot of different reasons as to why we've improved, but we got back to coaching more fundamental and technique," McLean said. "We've dialed things down so the kids could focus on just playing rather than worrying. Our kids are more confident in knowing their assignments, so they're playing faster and reacting better."
All told, St. Clairsville yields just 123.5 yards per game on the ground and only 96 through the air.
The defensive unit is led by the linebacking corp, which is talented. Senior Luke Smith, who McLean praised for being a student of the game, is the team's leading tackler with more than 100 tackles.
Ferns is the second leading tackler on the team with nearly 100 stops and Stephen has been impressive as he shifted back to inside linebacker, which McLean thinks is his more natural position. Ben Coleman is the other starter at linebacker.
Along the defensive line, senior Derek Shunk has been impressive as has Ernest, who leads the team with five sacks, at the defensive tackle spot. The Devils' defensive ends have emerged in Gossett and junior Colby Lindsay. Both are talented pass rushers.
In the secondary, Marhefka is the leader with six interceptions. Monteroso and Titus Lepic round out the defensive starters.
"St. Clairsville is also good on defense," Gullion said. "They're fundamentally sound and they're going to make you drive the length of the field because they don't give up the big play very often, so we have to be patient."
The Red Devils' kicking game has been solid. Junior Zach Musilli is a talented placekicker, knocking home 53 PAT kicks and two field goals. Senior Hayley Skukan has made 14 PATs. Giffin is quite adept at pinning teams deep on kickoffs with a solid leg.
Staskey can be reached via email at email@example.com