By KIM NORTH
Times Leader Sports Writer
MARTINS FERRY - It's no secret that the further a team advances in the postseason, the tougher the competition gets.
MARTINS?FERRY quarterback Brian Styles barks out the signals as Cody Beavers (77) prepares to block. Behind Styles is running back Marcus Sutton, who has had an impressive season on both sides of the ball for the Riders.?Martins Ferry will trek to Columbus Saturday to take on Wheelersburg in a Division V, Region 17 semifinal.
That's the position Martins Ferry finds itself in after dispatching Williamsport Westfall in the opening round of the Ohio High School Athletic Association's Division V, Region 17 football playoffs last week at the Dave Bruney Football Complex.
Now, the Purple Riders (10-1), the No. 2 seed in the region, will meet third-seeded Wheelersburg (10-1) Saturday night in Columbus at Hamilton Township High School for the right to play for the regional championship.
The game will kickoff at 7 p.m. on the artificial surface at Alumni Stadium. The winner will meet the survivor of the other semifinal between top-seeded Columbus Bishop Hartley (10-1) and No. 5 Baltimore Liberty Union (9-2) the following weekend at a site to be determined by the OHSAA.
The Pirates, who finished fifth in the final Associated Press poll, are making their 25th playoff appearance which ties them for seventh all-time in the Buckeye State. They are 22-23 overall and won a state championship in 1989, but are seeking their first regional final since 2004. Martins Ferry was eighth in the final AP rankings and is making its 12th playoff appearance. The Purple Riders are 8-11 all-time in playoff encounters.
"We 're happy with the way our kids are playing," veteran Martins Ferry head coach Dave Bruney said. "They are playing with no quit in them.
"This group is very mature. They play the entire game and don't let the highs bother them and they don't let the lows get to them," Bruney allowed. "You wish you wouldn't get behind, but that happens in football. They play for 48 minutes and always think they have a chance."
For the fourth straight week, Martins Ferry had to stage a comeback to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. However, last week's 30-28 rally over Williamsport Westfall was the most dramatic of the quartet.
Trailing 21-12 with only 12 minutes left to play, the Purple Gang pulled together and scored on three possessions to pull out a thrilling, 30-28, nod.
Senior quarterback Brian Styles, the Purple Riders' 5-6, 150-pound playmaker, triggered those scoring drives. His 38-yard sprint for six points drew the hosts to within 21-18, but the Mustangs answered with a TD and PAT for a 28-18 advantage with just under 10 minutes on the clock.
A 14-play, 77-yard march by the Purple, capped by Styles' 5-yard run, sliced the deficit to 28-24. Then, after holding Williamsport Westfall on downs and forcing a punt, Martins Ferry took possession at its own 45 with 4:34 on the clock.
Five carries by Styles, who ran for 154 yards and two TDs, another by junior Bryce Coleman and a crucial offsides penalty against the visitors advanced the ball to the Williamsport Westfall 11 with a little under two minutes remaining.
A pair of totes by Jahod Joyce moved the ball to the three and Bruce Burger took it the rest of the way for the go-ahead score with a minute left.
The Purple Riders defense snuffed out the final attempt by the visitors.
"The main reason we were behind was the 14 penalties we had," Bruney noted. "If you have 14 penalties, you shouldn't be able to beat St. Marys (grade school). That (having 14 penalties) is a testament to the kids being able to recover from that. We definitely need to clean that area up this week."
Styles has been Martins Ferry's sparkplug of late, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of the last three games. He has 722 yards rushing and has reached the end zone eight times.
Sophomore Arjay Burress is the Purple Riders' leading rusher with 1,060 yards and 10 six-pointers on 111 carries. However, he only had two carries for four yards last week after being dinged up early on. Senior Marcus Sutton has 100 carries for 631 stripes and six touchdowns. Burger has added 433 yards and a team-best 11 TDs on 63 carries.
"We have at least five with more than 400 yards rushing, and our average-per-carry is well over 6 yards per carry," Bruney offered. "Arjay is around 10."
The offensive line has become a close-knit group this year and, according to their head coach, have been the main reason the Purple Riders are playing in week 12.
"They have been the key to our success so far," Bruney said of the group that includes junior Jonathan Bodkin (5-8, 230) who anchors the line from his center spot, while senior Luke 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) and senior Austin DeLeonardis (6-0, 180) are the tight ends.
Earlier this season, tragically, Sadoski and his family lost everything in an early morning fire. However, that event seemed to draw the linemen even closer.
"The kids handled that situation the right way," Bruney praised. "They really did."
Styles has also shined as a passer, completing 29 of 51 passes (57 percent) for 425 yards and three touchdowns. He has thrown four picks.
"He's our playmaker, but sometimes because he's an athlete he tries to make plays that aren't there," Bruney said. "But he has done a very good job."
When he takes to the air, Styles usually looks for the sure-handed Jake Barritt. The 5-7, 145-pound junior has a team-leading 29 catches for 209 yards and a touchdown. Against Williamsport Westfall, Barritt landed a career-high nine receptions for 84 stripes. He is also dangerous as a punt returner and has one runback to the house.
"Jake does a great job of running the routes," Bruney added. "We run combination routes, so the read dictated that the ball go to Jake and he did a good job of catching the ball."
Other targets are the 6-6 Vargo (14-205-td), junior Jack Fitch (7-205-2tds) and classmate Andrew Watts (5-96-td).
The Purple Riders are averaging 32.8 points per outing and have only been held to 30 points or less four times.
"Martins Ferry does a very good job of utilizing its athletes," Wheelersburg head coach Rob Woodward said. "They are a classic team that will run the ball and take whatever you give them. They'll take the small gains and continue to pound away at you."
The Pirates like to spread the defense out with their high-tempo offense, similar to Bellaire, but with bigger weapons. The lineup in multiple formations offensively and run the zone read option. They average 43.4 points a game and have only been held under 40 points twice, once being 39.
"They like to get those two wideouts in open space," Bruney said. "They try to do somethings like we do, a little, by taking advantage of their strengths. They like to run the bubble screens and utilize the short passes.
"We've got tackle well in space and try to limit their gains after the catch," he continued. "Most of the yardage has come after the catch. If we can do those things and control the football, we've got an opportunity."
The Pirates' field general is Eddie Miller III, who has accounted for nearly 3,500 yards of total offense this season. The 6-2, 185-pound senior, who, according to Woodward, has a full ride to NAIA of Pikeville in Kentucky, has completed 166 of 255 passes (65.1 percent) for 2,387 yards and 28 touchdowns, as compared to eight interceptions. He has run for 1,090 and 17 touchdowns on 130 carries.
"He's the grandson of an ex-Wheelersburg head coach," Bruney said of Eddie Miller III. "He's an excellent player. He does a great job of running their offense."
In fact, Miller's grandfather, Eddie Miller, is the winningest coach in Wheelersburg history with a 173-29-2 (84.8 percent) record. He coached the Pirates from 1972-1982 and 1984-1991.
"Eddie has had an excellent season and career for us," Woodward, who is 53-15 in his sixth season.
Woodward explained that the Pirates running attack is very balanced, except for Miller's yardage. Micah McAlister, a 5-9, 165-pound junior, has picked up 336 yards and six touchdowns on 51 carries, while Christian Ellis, a 5-10, 165-pound senior, has 266 yards and two TDs on 42 totes.
The receiving corps are led by 6-4, 180-pound senior Dylan Miller (no relation to Eddie) who has caught 72 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. Classmate Tyler Claxon (5-10, 155) has grabbed 57 passes for 829 yards and a team-best 13 TDs. Austin May, a 6-0, 155-pound junior, has caught 20 passes for 393 yards and four scores.
Along the line, Wheelersburg averages 6-3, 258 pounds, with junior PJ Greeno (6-2, 305) at left guard and classmate Mitchell Warner (6-1, 225) beside him at tackle. The center is sophomore Sam Hall (6-4, 255), while junior Michael Staggs (6-0, 230) and classmate Gareth Bussa (6-2, 275) man the right side at guard and tackle, respectively.
"We play a lot of experienced juniors and seniors because the senior classes in 2011 and 2012 were the smallest in Wheelersburg history," Woodward noted. "That required these seniors, then sophomores, to play quite a bit."
Defensively, the Pirates run a plethora of alignments.
"We've run a 4-2, 4-3, 4-4, 5-2 and 5-3," Woodward explained. "We adjust to whatever the opposition is best at. We've been pretty successful doing that so far."
Many of the same names will appear on the defensive side of the ball, according to Woodward, who offered, "that's just the nature of Division V football."
Warner, Staggs, Hall and junior Ian Salyers (5-11, 215) rotate as the down tackles, with senior Camron Parsley (6-2, 205) and junior Andrew Conn (6-1, 175) manning the terminal posts. Parsley is another grandson of the long-time coach Miller.
The linebackers are Ellis and fellow senior Connor Stone (5-11, 185), along with junior Jacob Hutchinson (5-11, 185). Dylan Miller plays some linebacker and strong safety, while the secondary consists of Eddie Miller III, Claxon sophomore Kyle Davis (5-10, 160).
Parsley and Ellis are the leading tacklers with 70 and 69, respectively. Parsley and Hutchinson each have a team-leading three quarterback sacks, while Dylan Miller has picked off four passes.
Freshman placekicker Daylor Lewis has booted 55 PATs, but has not kicked a field goal.
"He is pretty consistent for a freshman kicker on extra points," Woodward said. "He has good range on field goals, but not the accuracy. He's learning the ropes of varsity football."
According to Bruney, Lewis missed three field goals in the Pirates' lone loss of the season, 10-7 to Lucasville Valley. However, the Pirates were also inside the LV 5-yard line twice and didn't score.
The Martins Ferry defense, which yields 20.3 points a game, is led by Sutton, Straub, Burger and senior Hondo Palmer (6-0, 255). Sutton has a team-leading 68 tackles, while Straub has 65, a pair of fumble recoveries and two sacks. Burger has made 63 tackles and sacked the quarterback twice.
Joyce leads the team with four sacks from his defensive end slot, while Palmer has recorded three and Douglas two.