The storybook season of the St. Clairsville Red Devils has reached its final chapter.
Whether or not it'll be a happy ending will be determined Friday afternoon in Canton's Fawcett Stadium.
The Red Devils find themselves within 48 minutes of making history and finishing off the finest story ever authored by a Belmont County school.
After winning for the 14th week in a row, St. C. will go after the school's first state football championship Friday afternoon against fellow unbeaten Clarksville Clinton-Massie in a 3 p.m. start.
"Obviously, to hoist that (trophy) Friday evening is the dream," said St. Clairsville head coach Brett McLean. "But, I am not thinking that way. We have to be well-prepared, calm under pressure and disciplined. This will the fastest 48 minutes of these kids lives, but we have to try to slow it down because if you get caught up in it, it can be gone in a blink of an eye."
The Red Devils reached this point by dispatching defending state champion Creston Norwayne, 40-27, last week in Massillon.
"I had to run out Saturday morning and get the paper to make it really set in that we were playing for the title," McLean said. "Friday night was definitely a surreal feeling, but we got back to work Saturday morning and started studying, and it's been business-like as usual."
As has been the case all season, however, McLean isn't about to let his team lose sight of the task at hand and let this opportunity to pass his team by.
"We'll look back, enjoy all of this and celebrate it when it's over," McLean said. "The good news is we know it's the last week. Except for the 11 others playing this weekend, every other team, which made the playoffs, ended their season unknowingly when it was going to happen, so we can cherish every minute of it."
The reality that today is the final practice for the Red Devils' 14 seniors is starting to hit home, but, again, McLean is making sure it's not going to be a somber attitude as the Red Devils wrap up preparations for the title game.
"We knew once we got into the playoffs that the miserable thing is that even though we have all of these great kids, it could end at anytime," McLean said.
Except for maybe a few more interviews, McLean has kept the week's plan exactly the same as he has the first 14 game.
"We got to work Saturday as coaches and started studying Clinton-Massie and then we met at my house for about six hours Sunday night trying to put together a game plan," McLean said. "There might be some side things we'll be involved with this week, but we'll practice and prepare exactly the same."
Clinton-Massie, which is located in Clinton County, north of Cincinnati on I-71, advanced to its first title game by virtue of sending shockwaves through the state of Ohio.
"This is a big state with a lot of good teams, and I don't know if I'd ever put my name by any pre-season predictions because it's such a tough road to hoe," McLean said. "There are so many good teams and so much can happen in 15 weeks. I don't know if anyone chose this matchup before the season, but it's reality."
The Falcons ousted Columbus Bishop Hartley, 45-21, despite falling behind the team that spent the entire season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Poll, 14-0.
"We've got a veteran group that's played in a lot of big games," said C-M head coach Dan McSurely. "We got down to Earth quickly after last week. We brought the kids in Saturday morning for films and did some lifting. Obviously, we feel the pride and excitement in the school and community, but our kids are focused and ready to go."
The Falcons have turned heads with their offense this season, establishing a new state record for points in a single season with 776. They've racked up all those points despite having thrown for less than 900 yards this season.
Clinton-Massie employs a vaunted running attack that is based on the seldom-seen triple option. The Falcons have logged 5,279 yards on the ground and scored 82 rushing touchdowns.
"They are what they are," McLean said. "They're extremely good in all phases of the game. I don't know how the game will unfold, but it's similar to last week in that we're going on the field with an unfamiliar opponent, so who knows what can happen? We'll see what works early and then adjust. That's the way we've done it throughout the playoffs."
Clinton-Massie's offense is led by junior tailback Bayle Wolfe (6-1, 195), who has carried 190 times for 1,839 yards and 37 touchdowns. He found the endzone five times last week.
He's joined in the backfield by senior fullback Wyatt Running (5-11, 185), who has carried 127 times for 1,657 yards and 21 touchdowns. Another big-play style back is senior J.D. Curtsinger (5-10, 175). He's accumulated 533 yards and four touchdowns.
"You have to play disciplined football and tackle well," McLean said. "We're going to have some one-on-one plays to make and what scares you is they're bigger backs than what we've seen. They run down hill hard, so when we get chances to get them on the ground, we have to do that, whether it's pretty or not."
Senior Tyler Uetrecht triggers the offense at the quarterback spot. He's only thrown 63 passes, completing 36 of those for 809 yards. He's thrown 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions. On the ground, he's ran for nine touchdowns and 366 yards.
Senior Trent Smart - an Ohio University verbal - is a force on both sides of the ball at 6-4, 240. He's the team's tight end and has caught 10 passes for 200 yards and four touchdowns. Junior Dylan Rose has made eight receptions for 246 yards and four scores.
The Falcons' offensive line isn't gigantic by any means, averaging 225 pounds a man. Smart withstanding, senior guard George Phillips is the biggest at 5-10, 230. Jake Weaver is an impressive 6-2, 225 and left tackle Bobby Ringer goes 6-3, 215.
The St. Clairsville defense has been a resilient bunch this season. While the offense has gotten a lot of the headlines, Coach Bruce Stiles' defense has just gone about its business.
"Our kids are mature and they understand what needs to happen at different situations in games," McLean said. "They don't get down or discouraged if we stutter offensively or if the other team scores. They just play the next series of downs and give us their best effort. Our defense has been put on the front burner the last couple of weeks and has really done well at making stops."
St. Clairsville's defense is led by its linebacking trio of senior Luke Smith, junior Michael Ferns and senior Cole Stephen. Smith has a team-high 157 tackles, while Ferns checks in with 127. Stephen and defensive end Jay Gossett are tied for third on the squad with 104 stops. The other linebacker is Justin Callarik, who's come up big since being inserted into the starting lineup due to injury.
Up front, Corey Ernest (89 tackles), Derek Shunk (81 tackles), Colby Lindsay (85 tackles) and Gossett play along the defensive line.
In the secondary, senior Jerrid Marhefka leads the way with seven interceptions at a corner spot. Senior Dan Monteroso is on the other side and has five picks. Senior Titus Lepic roams at safety. Junior Jaylon Brown also sees quality time in the secondary.
"St. Clairsville has a lot of athletes on both sides of the ball," McSurely said. "We know they'll probably put eight men in the box. We just have to stick to what we do and that's come off the ball hard and block hard. We want to keep our offense on the field, which could be our best defense against St. Clairsville's offense."
The Falcons' defense is allowing just over six points a game this season and has pitched five shutouts. The most points its allowed was the 21 that Hartley scored last week. They've also forced 35 turnovers, including 18 pass interceptions, and recorded 29 sacks.
"You look at the film and there aren't a lot of holes on this defense," McLean said. "They've got good linebackers, a good secondary that's been shutting people down and a front line that can play. But, when you're preparing for the state final, that's what you expect to see, an excellent team all the way around."
The Red Devils' offense, which has scored 677 points, hasn't been slowed down this season, averaging 48 points a game.
The St. C. balance is what causes so many teams problems.
McSurely didn't need long to figure out who the Red Devils' chief playmaker was.
"(Monteroso) is going to be a handful," McSurely said. "We have to identify him immediately. He's a fast kid with good jumping ability. But, you have to be aware of everyone else, too because (St. Clairsville) is extremely balanced."
Monteroso, who was named first-team all-Ohio earlier this week, has caught 59 passes for 1,340 yards and 17 touchdowns.
He's hauling in passes from talented senior quarterback Matt Kinnick, who's been brilliant. He's completed 135-of-223 passes for 2,991 yards. He's thrown 37 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
"We have to bring as much pressure as we can," McSurely said. "We have to get back to working on getting to the quarterback. We want to bring as much pressure as we can and hope our secondary can hold up."
Marhefka is also a big-play threat in the passing game as he's shown the last two weeks, making critical catches against both Johnstown-Monroe and Norwayne. For the season, he's hauled in 27 passes for 711 yards and eight touchdowns.
When the Red Devils go to the ground, junior speedster Jaylon Brown is the go-to-guy. He's ran for 1,778 yards and 33 touchdowns. He's also caught 15 passes for 318 yards and three scores.
Ferns rounds out the Red Devils' five-headed offensive monster at the fullback or tight end spot. He ran for almost 300 yards and three scores and caught passes for better than 230 yards and five touchdowns.
"When you're committed to Michigan, you'd expect him to be a big threat," McSurely said. "He's an impressive kid on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he looks like a beast when he blitzes. Plus, he runs extremely well."
The St. C. offense has clicked because of brilliant offensive line play. Stephen and Ernest shift over to the offensive line and are joined by senior Tom Parker, junior Joel Giffin and junior Nick VanVoltenburg.
The Clinton-Massie defense is led by Smart, who is just one of three starters who go both ways.
Wolfe and Curtsinger are the other two players who go both ways.
Seniors Cole Brogan and Travis Daugherty are ballhawks in the secondary along with corner Josh Loud.
Both teams are exceptional on special teams. C-M placekicker Callum Jones has set a state record with 94 PAT kicks. St. C.'s placekicking is handled by junior Zach Musilli, who's connected on 68 PATs and four field goals.