St. Clairsville football and the postseason are becoming synonomous.
The Red Devils are embarking on their 10th trip to the playoffs, so it's becoming old hat.
Don't think for a minute, however, that a school that owns two regional championships and last season's Division IV state runnerup trophy takes it for granted.
Head coach Brett McLean, who has guided St. C. to all but three of its prior trips, won't allow his players or coaching staff to begin to undersell the idea of playing beyond the promised 10 games.
"We didn't hesitate to celebrate the fact that we qualified," McLean said. "To us, it's a huge honor to make the playoffs. This is a great high school football state, and to be able to extend your season is always a good thing and something we strive for."
The Red Devils, who played the maximum five tournament games in 2012 before falling to Clarksville Clinton-Massie in the Division IV title game, have dropped to Division V in the state's new seven-division system and will begin their march Saturday night at Red Devil Stadium against fifth-seeded Baltimore Liberty Union.
"You have to play who's in front of you," McLean said. "Liberty Union's no stranger to winning. They have a strong tradition and they've went toe-to-toe with a lot of bigger schools, so they're no stranger to big-time football. This could really be a great game."
It's actually a matchup of defending regional champions. Liberty Union won Region 19 a season ago before falling in the state semifinals. Many of those players on that team are back for head coach Dan Johnson, who is in his 29th season at the helm.
"It's sweet to get back in the playoffs," Johnson said. "The boys definitely appreciate and are excited for the opportunity. It's been a different kind of season for us because we've changed leagues."
Liberty Union comes to Belmont County with an 8-2 record. It struggled against teams from the city of Circleville, falling to Logan Elm (41-26) on Oct. 11 and Circleville (20-14) on Oct. 25. The Lions own an impressive win against a Division II playoff entrant, Hamilton Township, on Oct. 4, 27-6.
"The Hamilton Township game was our best performance of the season, but it took a toll on us (physically)," Johnson said. "It probably took us about three weeks to recover from that. We're the smallest school in the middle division of the Mid-State League, so we've played schools that are a good bit bigger than us."
The Red Devils, despite battling a myriad of injuries, finished the regular season 9-1 and claimed a piece of the Buckeye 8 title.
"I think we had one of the most quiet 9-1 seasons you could have," McLean said. "We played some teams from outside of the area that didn't draw much attention, so we slid under the radar to a degree. We didn't know what to think after our Carrollton scrimmage and first game at Claymont because we had some new guys starting in place of guys who were darn good. But, our kids stepped up in those roles and had a great regular season.
St. C.'s 17-game regular season win streak was snapped on Oct. 12 at Bellaire, 38-28.
Since then, though, the Red Devils have re-gained their focus and won their final three outings by a combined score of 124-25.
"Our team turned (the Bellaire loss) into a positive," McLean said. "We certainly can't take anything away from Bellaire because they just beat us, but we've had a much more level head in our approach since then. Now, we're at the point where there's no second chance. We have to be ready to go."
The Red Devils are led by senior tailback Jaylon Brown. The all-Ohioan, who is headed to Youngstown State University, has ran for 1,244 yards and 20 touchdowns despite missing a game with an injury.
Last week, against Union Local, St. C. showed a new wrinkle and put Brown in the 'Wildcat.' He responded with more than 200 yards rushing and three scores on six carries.
"Jaylon's a heck of an athlete, who isn't going to be here for much longer, so we want to continue to get him as involved as we can," McLean said. "The kids really reacted well to that (Wildcat) last week and it seemed to give us a burst of energy once we told them we were going to utilize that a little bit."
Johnson likes the speed of his squad, but didn't hesitate to admit that the Lions have no one as fast as Brown, who is a multiple-time all-Ohioan sprinter on the track.
"We have a bunch of little, mean, fast guys, but none of them can run like (Brown)," Johnson said. "St. Clairsville definitely have a lot of playmakers, but the tailback is a great player and I can see why he's going to (Youngstown St.). I don't think we've played anyone like that."
Junior Michael Monteroso has settled into the quarterback role. He's completed 71-of-127 passes for 1,064 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was picked off eight times.
His top targets are junior Malik Gummer and J.C. Coleman. They've caught 22 and 16 passes, respectively.
Michigan commit Michael Ferns is questionable for this week's game with a lingering shoulder issue.
"It's a serious shoulder problem and that's how it needs to be approached," McLean said. "We've lost Brad LeCron and Blake Peroni for the season, but other than that, our depth chart is pretty sound. But, I don't think in 12 years that I've been here, we've had this many injuries. The playoffs, though, are a war of attrition."
If Ferns doesn't go, sophomore Jake Stewart, who has also missed a couple of games with injury, will take over the fullback role. Brendan Ferns is the St. C. tight end.
In the trenches, St. Clairsville's offensive line will own a size advantage. The line is comprised of Joel Giffin, Nick VanVoltenburg, John Bland, Mike Furbee and Colby Lindsay.
"We're not big on either side of the line," Johnson said. "This is going to be quite a challenge for us. They've got multiple weapons and it seems like they can run out of about 50 different formations, so we'll have to be prepared mentally and be lined up correctly on every play."
One advantage that Liberty Union has against St. Clairsville and probably most Division V combines is the ability to platoon. Very few players for the Lions go both ways.
"They're very fast to the ball and they really get after you," McLean said. "We have to be efficient on offense, not turn the ball over and capitalize on the chances we get."
The Liberty Union is led by Justin Barber, who has 115 tackles. Braden Powers has 89 tackles and eight sacks. Josh Parsley has 72 stops. In the secondary, Tyler Magley has five of his team's 16 interceptions.
The Lions' offense is versatile with a strong running game and effective passing game.
Senior Jacob Basso, who played a star role for the Lions last season, leads the rushing attack with 183 carries for 1,091 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also handles the Liberty Union kicking duties.
Austin Vannatta is the Liberty Union quarterback. He's completed 98 of 163 passes for 1,321 yards and nine touchdowns. He's been picked off seven times.
Adam Snyder, who is the son of Bellaire High graduates Dan and Sherri (Bolon) Snyder, is the leading receiver with 35 catches for 538 yards and four touchdowns.
Eric McClure is the second-leading receiver with 21 receptions for 194 yards.
"They run a similar offense to ours," McLean said. "They're conventional and high percentage with what they do. They're all like a bunch of clones of each other and they all move well. (Basso) runs hard and downhill, plus he's pretty fast. They're just really efficient."
The Red Devils defense is led by Stewart, who's been a tackling machine at linebacker. He's been in on some 110 tackles and has recovered three fumbles. Brendon Ferns has made has recorded 80 stops, while linebacker Ben Coleman checks in with 76 tackles. Isiah Sears gets the start at the other outside linebacker post.
"Their linebacking corp looks very solid with some veteran guys in there," Johnson said. "They're big and can run well. The corners are fast and the free safety does a good job of limiting big plays. To me, they're just a great all-around team with no weak spots."
Lindsay and Giffin line up at the respective defensive end posts. Brown and Gummer are the corners. Gummer has a team-high four interceptions. Tanner Nemeti roams at the safety spot.
The St. C. special teams have been impressive with senior placekicker Zach Musilli enjoyed another brilliant season. He's connected on 45 PAT kicks and five field goals.
The winner of the Red Devils and Lions' battle, which will kickoff at 7, will advance to face the winner of top-seeded Bishop Hartley and Zane Trace.