River squeaks into Region 23 field

The River Pilots (7-3) are back in the Ohio Division VI postseason for the first since 2008 after snagging the No. 8 spot in Region 23.

Their reward is a near-3 hour bus ride for a meeting with No. 1 Danville (9-1), a perennial Ohio Division VI playoff participant.

However, none of that matters for the Pilots, who’ve had their backs to the wall for much of the season. They needed a walk-off field goal to survive at Caldwell and have taken off from there.

The quest for the Region 23 tournament still came down to the last weekend. The Pilots played last Saturday afternoon and beat Frontier, but that was just the first step.

The Pilots then waited anxiously to see if either Fort Frye could beat Zanesville Rosecrans that ame evening to supply a much-needed bonus point for the computer rankings or if Racine Southern could take down Reedsville Eastern in their finale because Easter was sitting in the eighth spot after having the OHSAA?restore its record after assessing it to forfeits earlier in the week.

Actually, everything the Pilots needed to happen, happned and here they are heading to Knox County this weekend.

The teams’ respective coaching staffs have spent the week familiarizing themselves with their Friday night opponent.

Zanesville Rosecrans, the No. 4 team in Region 23, vanquished both the Blue Devils and Pilots. River fell 31-7 in Week 6 while Danville dropped a 21-7 verdict in Week 2.

The commanality is that in both games, the losing team had its fair share of mental mistakes. Long-time Danville coach Ed Honaberger related as much when looking back at his team’s lone loss of the season.

“We had 12 drops, 14 quarterback errors, eight offensive penalties and all at the wrong time, plus two turnovers,” Honaberger recalled. “We were up 7-6 at the half. They weren’t that deep so we had them pretty tuckered out. Then there was a 90-minute lightening delay and that gave their big guys some time to regroup.

“That was our growing pains with the spread that night. To put it simple, we were in la-la-land.”

Spread you say?

For anyone familiar with Danville’s dominance during the last decade, the only time the word spread came into play was in reference to a mythical points spread their fans might have been formulating prior to kickoff.

Danville ran the football. It ran it often and ran it well. It still can run the football. But now, the primary offensive formations features empty and one-back sets with quarterback Bryce Staats running the show.

Staats has passed for 2,057 yards with 21 touchdowns against four picks. He’s also the team’s leading rusher with 1,066 yards.

Despite such a drastic change, the Blue Devils’ players soaked up the system in a spongelike manner, much easier than Honaberger adjusted to calling that many pass plays in a series, let alone a game.

“Honestly, I never thought I’d like it, but now, boy oh boy,” Honaberger said. “My guts were turning during those first practices, scrimmages and first couple of games.

“But this is the direction we have to go and the older kids just picked it up and ran with it. The kids worked hard in the summertime on their own, lifting, playing 7 on 7, and got a good feel for it.”

Corey Geog is the Devils’ big-play threat with 46 catches for 728yards. He’s followed by Staats’ go-to-guy, Cade Mickley and Austin Hazen. Mickley has 33 receptions for 431 yards.

When a big play is needed, look for Staats to be looking in Mickley’s direction. Hazen has 423 yards on 19 receptions.

Kyle Shultz has rushed for 316 yards on 61 carries and is the team’s short-yardage specialist.

River Coach Mike Flannery has been pouring through tape on Danville. He knows this will be the best quarterback and most prolific passing offense his team has played against this season.

But the coach also feels the Pilots’ 4-3 defensive scheme matches up well with the Devils’ in the skill positions.

It’s Danville’s sizable offensive line that has given the coach some pause.

“I’m very comfortable with how we match up with them,” Flannery said. “But we have to find a way to get pressure and stay in our asignment area and rally to the foobtall.

“We haven’t faced a quarterback with this type of athleticism on our schedule. And they are real big up front.

“That’s what I’m worried about but (Defensive) coach (Tim) Frye does an excellent job of scheming defensively.

“The game’s we’ve lost this season, we’ve put our defense in bad situations.”

River will try to prevent those types of situations by countering with a balanced offense, spearheaded by the two-pronged rushing attack of Nick Asturi and Jordan Sapp.

Asturi has toted the ball 139 times for 1,017 yards and 17 touchdowns while Saap has 816 yards and eight scores on 122 carries.

While River’s bread and butter is the ground game, senior quarterback Cody Caldwell is a three-year starter and is a veteran in directing the offense. It shows in his stats: Caldwell has 1,314 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air.

“I told the kids we have to win first downs,” Flannery said. “We can’t start out second and 15 and then have crazy things happen to us. The games we’ve lost, we usually find a way to shoot ourselves in the foot.

You can’t do that against a good football team.”

The versatile Kameron Brown is Caldwell’s leading reeiver with 774 yards and seven TDs on 37 receptions. Bryce Cross has two TDs and 173 yards while Asturi is adept at catching out of the backfield, logging 15 receptions for 242 yards and a score.

“We want to score early and often,” Honaberger said.

“We want to be able to put people in a hole early. Everyone tries against us to eat up the clock, eat up time.

“I’m seeing a lot of interesting matchups in this game though. Our skill levels are about same.”

Defensively, the ‘Devils play a read-and-react style out of a 4-4 alignment. While they will blitz if neccesary.

One area where River has a decided advantage is in special teams.

Sophomore Colton Wright has developed into a weapon for Flannery’s club, sporting a strong leg and stronger accuracy with his kicks. Wright has 35 PAT kicks and three field goals.

Despite the fact that there is a common opponent, neither Flannery nor Honaberger is reading too much into the Rosecrans’ game.

“We’ve had one common opponent, but you can’t compare that,” Danville coach Ed Honaberger said. “That old comparison shopping doesn’t hold true in sports.”

The winner of this game will play the winner of Rosecrans and Willow Wood, giving at least River or Danville the possibility of redemption against the Bishops.

The actual site of the possible regional semifinal won’t be announced until Sunday afternoon by the OHSAA.