Harrison set for rematch with St. Clairsville

This past Friday night will be a night that the Harrison Central football program, fans and community won’t soon forget.

Shortly after wrapping up their first-ever victory against rival Buckeye Local to win the coveted VALES Trophy, Justin Kropka and company were doing some heavy scoreboard watching, refreshing their cell phones frequently.

Then the Bellaire victory against Martins Ferry popped in as a final score and Kropka happened to be in the press box and he flipped on the microphone and became the public address announcer.

“I announced the final score of the Bellaire-Martins Ferry game and then said, ‘we’ll see you in St. Clairsville next week,'” Kropka said. “I’ll be honest, Friday night was probably one of the most fun nights I’ve had as a coach … I’ll remember it forever.”

When the OHSAA announced the official Division IV, Region 15 pairings Sunday afternoon, the Huskies had clinched their second-ever trip to the postseason and first time in four years. Their reward is a return encounter with state-ranked and top-seeded St. Clairsville on the turf of Red Devil Stadium Friday night at 7:30 p.m.

“We’re excited to be where we are and we’re going to go Friday and give St. Clairsville everything we’ve got,” Kropka said.

The Huskies are well aware of the fact that they’re sizable underdogs this week seeing that the Red Devils handed them a 42-6 beatdown in Cadiz in Week five.

“I like being in these situations,” Kropka said of the underdog role. “That’s why we watch Rocky movies. Everyone wants to see the underdog get a win and everyone’s had their turn at being the underdog. We can shed everything, go over there and play football and see how it goes.”

The winner of this week’s encounter advances to the Nov. 9 regional semifinal against the winner of Minford and Piketon at a site to be determined by the OHSAA on Sunday.

“St. Clairsville is like the Big Red Machine and we’re just a group of kids from Harrison County who’s had a nice season,” Kropka said. “We have nothing holding us back and we may even try some things that we’ve not tried before. That’s just another advantage to being the underdog.”

While many might never look at the tape of a 42-point loss ever again, Kropka and his trusted coaching staff have spent a lot of hours this week reviewing that tape and plenty of others of the Red Devils as they try to search for any chinks in the armor. However, Kropka points out that no team has even come close to finding one yet as St. C. averages 50 points a game offensively.

“Our film from the first game against them is the biggest key,” Kropka said. “You don’t get a much better look than them against us. But, we realize that a lot of things can change in five weeks and when you’re dealing with 16- and 17-year-old kids that could be a host of things change. There won’t be a lot of secrets going into Friday night. We are who we are and they’re who they are, so we just have to get better.”

The Huskies actually struck first against St. C. in the prior meeting and led 6-0, but fell victim to the Red Devils’ abundance of speed and athleticism on both sides of the ball.

Having so many more tapes and weeks to reflect, Kropka just can’t come up with any sort of exact recipe to defend the Devils.

“If you go position by position and look at the talent, it’s not close between the two teams,” Kropka said. “But, it’s teenagers playing football and anything can happen. I don’t think there’s a recipe to slow them down. Let’s be honest, you’re not going to bake a cake with a can of tuna fish. The key is just playing your game, but they put so much pressure on you because if you make a mistake, take a misstep, they make you pay.”

Whether it’s quarterback Matt Kinnick, tailback Jaylon Brown, wide receiver Dan Monteroso, wide receiver Jerrid Marhefka or versatile junior Michael Ferns, the Red Devils have a bevy of ways to get teams.

“We have to limit mistakes, don’t give up any easy scores and get a couple of breaks to go our way,” Kropka said. “Quite frankly, we’re going to need some kids to play above their heads, and I’ve seen that happen before. We’re approaching this game like we’ve done the first 10, and that’s approach it as if we’re supposed to win.”

The Huskies’ defense is led by senior linebacker Nick Pelegreen, who set the Huskies’ single-season record for tackles with 121 stops. He’s flanked in the middle by Niko Williams.

At the outside linebacker spots, sophomore Nate Maykowski and Jeremy Spoonmore have turned in solid seasons as well.

Senior Tyler Rose has been tremendous at one defensive end. He’s got 65 tackles and three sacks despite missing two games due to injury. Josh Leggett roams at the other end spot. At the defensive tackle spots, Rhett Kuryn and Tyler Hood anchor the line.

The secondary has been strong. Senior standout Rashaen Mitchell roams at free safety, while Josh Moore, who has 38 tackles and four interceptions, and Nate Olmstead are the corners.

When it comes to moving the ball against the Red Devils, teams had some success on the ground, which plays into Harrison Central’s hands because it loves to run the ball.

The Huskies’ offense is led by senior tailback Maurtice Hython, who’s been brilliant. He’s ran for 1,803 yards and 19 touchdowns this season. He’s also caught 17 passes for 240 yards and a score.

Mitchell is the quarterback and has played brilliantly. He’s thrown for 1,443 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s also added 311 yards and four scores on the ground.

When the Huskies do air it out, Olmstead (21-573-7td) and Moore are the primary targets. Pelegreen is another viable option from the tight end spot.

Hython has piled up all sorts of yards by following the blocking of center Colton Houston, right guard Cole Howes, right tackle Kuryn, left tackle Sean Donato and Rose at right guard. Williams is the lead blocker from the fullback spot.

Rafael Texiera handles the Huskies’ place kicking.

The Red Devils’ defense is led by senior Luke Smith, Ferns, Corey Ernest, Derek Shunk, Colby Lindsay, Monteroso, Marhefka, Titus Lepic and Cole Stephen just to name a handul.

“Our kids always play hard and that’s never an issue,” Kropka said. “I know we’ll go Friday and do the same. These kids have invested a lot of time over the years and it’s hard to throw in the towel when you’ve done that.”