STEUBENVILLE-Reno Saccoccia knows his Big Red is in for "a great challenge" when it goes toe-to-toe with Youngstown Cardinal Mooney Friday in the Division IV semifinals.
"Mooney is a very good program," Saccoccia said earlier this week. "Playing them is a great challenge for us. We've played them tough a couple of times but that's all in the past. Our focus is on this team and we are the regional champions.
"We're going to go out there and play and coach to the best of our ability. They'll have to stick a fork in us to beat us."
The tradition-rich programs will bring 9-4 marks into Friday's game, set to start at 7:30 p.m. inside Canton's Fawcett Stadium. Kenton, 13-0, and Clarksville Clinton-Massie, 12-1 and the defending Division IV champion, will collide in the other semifinal. That game is scheduled for Dayton's Welcome Stadium.
In winning the Region 13 title, Big Red, which earned the eighth seed, topped number-one seed Newark Licking Valley 21-14, fourth-seeded Maysville 22-20 and Indian Valley, the second seed, 17-14. The Red came from behind in all three of its victories.
"Given their history and their success in the past, you sure as heck wouldn't have been counting them out in that region," Mooney coach P.J. Fecko told the Youngstown Vindicator. "I think a lot of people get caught up in what spot you're in, 1-8, which really doesn't matter. Just because they were an eight-seed sure as heck doesn't mean they weren't capable of winning the whole thing.
Mooney was the three seed in Region 11. The Cardinals opened with a 45-20 win over Cleveland John Hay before smashing Struthers 42-14 in the semifinals. Mooney earned its title by overcoming an early 14-0 deficit to clip Cleveland Benedictine 28-21.
"It's a great feeling," Saccoccia stated about winning the region. "I think it's probably the best regional championship we've ever won. I don't mean to slight anyone with that comment; I'm just expressing our feelings about this year."
Following the Week 9 loss to Wheeling Park, Big Red's playoff hopes were on life support. Saccoccia's crew snapped a rare three-game losing streak by beating Renaissance Christian Academy in the regular season finale and earned the school's 13th straight trip to the post-season.
"I never really give my coaches enough credit, because, in part, they really don't expect it," Saccoccia noted. "They work hard every week, every game and every year. It wasn't the X's and O's they were superlative at this year; it was keeping the guys' mental attitudes as high as they needed to be.
"Every time a kid went out, the coaches put the next kid in, coached him up and every Friday night we were ready. We had a very hard week of preparation going into our 10th game.
"We had just lost our fourth game and we were 5-4. The coaches were in a tough position. They had to get our kids mentally prepared and ready to play RCA. We did our job, we won the game and then we got help from others. We dug ourselves out of a grave."
Saccoccia continued by saying "I want to thank our coaches for the job they've done this season."
As far as the run to a regional title goes, Saccoccia credits "youthful enthusiasm" along with the right amount experience.
"With our young players, you get enthusiasm and good things happen with enthusiasm," he pointed out. "That enthusiasm covered up a lot of the mistakes we made in the first two playoff games. Then some older guys came back and they've been there before.
"It's been a combination of younger guys who haven't been there with enthusiasm and older guys with experience. Experience and enthusiasm go a long way. That's just what we got into."