Martins Ferry thought it had a playoff-caliber team in 2012, but injuries derailed the Purple Riders' season and resulted in them missing out on the postseason.
However, the bright side was that a lot of sophomores got plenty of playing time, and that maturity, along with some talented senior leadership, the Riders have overcome every obstacle - except for a week 4 setback to St. Clairsville - that was presented them this season in rolling to a 9-1 record, a share of the Buckeye 8 title and the OVAC Class 4A championship under veteran head coach Dave Bruney.
Martins Ferry also sewed up the No. 2 seed in Division V, Region 17 with its cherished, 22-17, victory over arch-rival Bellaire last week in the 108th meeting of their storied history, which allowed the return of the SPARKY Trophy to the Purple City. The Purple Riders will host a home game Saturday night against No. 7 seed Williamsport Westfall (5-5) on the artificial surface at the Dave Bruney Football Complex. Kickoff is set for 7.
"This was a goal," Bruney said of making the playoffs. "We wanted to play well enough to get into the playoffs and well enough to get a home game. We did both
"The most rewarding thing about this season is how the kids have responded to the different challenges that have been thrown at them," the veteran Purple Rider mentor continued. "Three weeks in a row at the end of the season on the road and behind, and they battled back in each game and found a way to win. There have also been other things happen that we can't control, but we've never had a bad practice, kept chopping wood and things turned out for us."
Cat-quick senior Brian Styles moved to quarterback midway through the season and immediately became the Purple Riders' playmaker, both with his feet and his arm, respectively.
"He's electric," Bruney said of the 5-6, 147-pounder. "He works hard, or harder, than anyone in practice every day."
Known for his running abilities more than his passing skills, he showed off both last week against the Big Reds when he ran for 91 yards, a touchdown and a 2-point conversion. He also threw a 33-yard TD strike to junior wideout Jake Barritt, and found fullback Marcus Sutton down the sidelines for 40 yards with a nice touch pass on the move.
"He throws the ball pretty well, but sometimes, being the athlete that he is, he thinks he can make every play," Bruney noted. "For the most part, with the number of reps he's gotten at quarterback, he's been pretty consistent. He's so quick, and when he's in the shotgun he gets that quick drop and gets the ball off before the rush can distract him. He can also thrown well on the move."
For the season, Styles has accounted for 1,065 total yards, with 575 coming on the ground and 363 through the air. He is 21 of 37 (58 percent) with three touchdowns and a like number of interceptions. He also recorded 127 yards receiving and a TD before switching to quarterback.
The Purple Riders running attack has been led by sophomore Arjay Burress, who surpassed the 1,000-yard mark last week. He now totals 1,056 stripes on 108 carries and 10 TDs. He is averaging nearly 10 yards-per-carry (9.8). Sutton (5-8, 177) has gained 599 yards and scored five times. Bruce Burger has run for 413 yards and 10 six-pointers.
"Arjay has a lot of talent," Bruney allowed of his 5-11, 190-pounder. "He did a lot of good things with the football in 8th and 9th grade. He has good field awareness and vision, and he has decent speed."
Burress had four games of more than 100 yards this season, and another two over 200. His top output was 257 against Harrison Central.
As they say, good running backs and quarterbacks are only as good as the offensive line opening the holes or pass protecting.
"We have five running backs averaging over 5 yards per carry and Burress is around 10, so that says a lot about the offensive line," Bruney praised. "We have two seniors and the rest are juniors."
The seniors he was referring to are Robert Vargo and Luke Straub.Junior Jonathan Bodkin (5-8, 230) anchors the line from his center spot, while Straub (6-0, 260) and junior Cody Beavers (6-1, 220) are the guards. The tackles include juniors Brian Sadoski (6-3, 218) and Nick Bain (6-0, 267). Classmate Mark Douglass (5-9, 200) also sees time. Vargo (6-6, 255) is the tight end.
When Martins Ferry does throw, it's usually to Barritt (5-8, 150), Vargo, junior Jack Fitch (5-11, 155) or junior Andrew Watts (5-10, 170). Barritt has a team-best 20 receptions for 223 yards, while Vargo has 14 for 211 and a TD. Fitch has caught six passes for almost 200 stripes and two scores. Watts has five catches for 96 yards and a TD. Barritt also has a punt return for a TD.
Defensively, Vargo, Straub, Hondo Palmer and Bruce Burger were some of the names that Bruney cited as being among the leaders on this side of the ball.
"It's a shame the Palmer kid hasn't played since his freshman season," Bruney added. "He's done a great job for us."
When speaking about Vargo, Bruney's eyes lit up.
"He can affect a game on both sides of the ball," he explained. "He's a great blocker on offense and a ferocious end on defense. He's a three-sport athlete and I think that helps with his competitive edge. He has great awareness."
Last week, especially, Vargo was a man among boys from his terminal post as he continually swatted away pass after pass.
"He did a good job of getting as close as he could before Spencer (Badia) was releasing the ball. Then he would go up and knock them down. That was uncanny."
Sutton and Burger both charted more than 60 tackles this season, with Sutton having one more at 64-63. Straub has recorded 57 stops, with TJ Jacob at 43 and Palmer at 42. Vargo has 39 and Burress 31. Fitch has a trio of interceptions, returning one for six points. Barritt, Douglas, Styles and Watts all have two picks each. Barritt leads with a pair of fumble recoveries, while Jahod Joyce has three quarterback sacks in just two games since returning to the lineup.
As far as Williamsport Westfall goes, Bruney said they remind him of Allderdice's size up front coupled with Indian Creek's running backs.
"They are big up front with two good running backs," Bruney said. "Their quarterback also has a strong arm."
The Mustangs, according to first-year head coach Brian Spicer, have been playing playoff football since week three after after an 0-3 start in which they were outscored by an eye-popping 141-30 count by Teays Valley (52-22), Logan Elm (54-8) and Circleville (35-0).
"We've been watching our region for awhile, so we kind of knew if we took care of business where we'd end up and who we would play in the playoffs," Spicer, who has coached at Carrollton, Hillsboro, Marietta and Marlington high schools.
Westfall employs the spread offense with junior Cole Hardin running the offense in his first year. According to Spicer, Hardin has passed for more than 1,200 yards and has surpass the 200-yard mark in each of the last two weeks. The running backs are seniors Taylor Salmons, who has run for nearly 1,000 yards this season, and Tommy Staten, who Spicer says surprises people when he gets the ball.
Defensively, the Mustangs lineup in the 3-4.
"We looked at (Westfall) on film all day (Sunday), and they're not in the playoffs by accident," Bruney allowed. "They're a very good football team."
Spicer said this will be his team's first game on turf this season, but he doesn't consider it a disadvantage.
"These kids have been in the playoffs before and played on turf," he said. "The biggest thing will be when we take the field. Martins Ferry has that great tradition with the longevity of their program and they've had some famous graduates. For our kids to make that 3-hour-plus trip over there and to play in that great facility and in what I expect to be a great atmosphere, is good for our program."