Saying there's a lot on the line for Saturday's showdown between Bellaire and St. Clairsville at Nelson Field would be a vast understatement.
Whether you're talking about the playoffs, the OVAC or Buckeye 8 title chases, there's a little bit of everything involved. However, when it boils down to it, it's still a rivalry game that needs little else to add to its importance.
"This series has a rich tradition," said Red Devils' head coach Brett McLean. "These are the kinds of games you want to be involved in. This what you work so hard for in the summer is to play in these kinds of games."
The Red Devils come in with a spotless 6-0 record. Actually, they've won their last 17 regular season encounters, dating back to 2011. St. C. currently paces the OVAC 4A title chase and is ranked second in the most recent Ohio prep grid poll.
"These are the games you expect to be involved in," said Bellaire head coach Jose Davis. "We're excited to have the game at home and we're really looking forward to playing and seeing how we match up."
The Big Reds, meanwhile, have won three straight since falling to Shadyside. They're 4-2 overall and are in the thick of the OVAC 3A title chase as well as the Division VI, Region 21 playoff race.
"We're continuing to get better," Davis said. "We work every day and know we have to continue to improve on both sides of the ball. We talk all the time about competing and making ourselves better."
The key to the recent surge by the Big Reds has been strong defensive performance that's included several bend, but do not break chances. That was especially evident last week at Indian Creek.
"I think their whole team is clicking," McLean said. "To be able to hold Indian Creek out of the end zone as often as they did last week tells you something about Bellaire's defense. I think they're looking like a team in midseason form that's playoff ready."
The Big Reds' defense will be preparing for somewhat of the unknown because the playing status of Red Devils' seniors Jaylon Brown and Michael Ferns was still unknown as of earlier in the week. Both Division I commits sat out the Devils' week 6 victory against Harrison Central.
"Basically, both are getting treatments and it's a matter of how they respond," McLean said. "Both were low grade injuries, but it's going to be a day-to-day thing as the week goes along. Having the extra day helps."
The Big Reds are preparing as if Brown and Ferns will be in the backfield come Saturday afternoon.
"I don't think there's a shot that they don't play," Davis said. "Jaylon Brown is one of those guys who makes everyone else around him better. We have to be prepared for all of their weapons."
If those two don't play, McLean and company will turn to sophomore Shane Peroni once again in the backfield. He had a big game last week. Junior Michael Monteroso has done yeoman's work at quarterback. Junior Malik Gummer is one of the area's most explosive players both on offense and on special teams.
"We're super proud of how those young guys stepped up last week," McLean said. "Given our health or not, I think this is going to be a tough, tough test for us. We have to go down there and play sound, tackle well in space and make plays."
Tackling well is huge against the Big Reds have made a living at getting their numerous playmakers into space.
Quarterback Spencer Badia triggers the attack. He's thrown for an area best 1,255 yards and 17 touchdowns. He's got a bevy of options, but his favorite target has been classmate Nick Patrone (22-448-8td).
Other playmakers the Big Reds are utilizing in the passing game include: senior Kenny Hess (21-370-4), Tyler West (15-181); Brendon Ross (15-158-2) and junior Hunter Westlake (14-86-2).
The Big Reds aren't an entirely aerial attack. West has ran for 301 yards and 4 touchdowns. Westlake has ran for 264 yards and 5 touchdowns and junior Brandon Laughman was impressive in his debut last week, racking up 165 yards on just 11 carries.
"We have to keep them from the big play," McLean said. "We want to make them work to get the points they score.
"They can score so fast and they're out of a game. We've had that capability before, so we know what kind of luxury that is."
Both clubs are solid on special teams. Senior Zac Musilli is one of the top placekickers in the Ohio Valley with 25 PAT and 3 field goals. Bellaire's Cody LaRoche has connected on 22 PAT and 3 field goals.
Staskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org