St. Clairsville on the verge of state semifinals

Brett McLean admits he’s heard all of the stories and tales of the 1986 St. Clairsville Red Devil football team, which is the only team in the illustrious history of the school to win a regional crown.

“Those are the ‘glory days’,” McLean said. “I’ve heard about Coach (George) Strager’s years and the stretch from the late 70s to the mid 80s. From what I’ve heard, those were great teams and a great era of St. Clairsville football. I hope there’s a time when people are talking about some of our teams like those.”

McLean and the rest of the Red Devils are hoping to etch another chapter into the St. Clairsville football history book and at the same time bring the school’s second regional championship home Friday night.

“It would be another step in the direction we want to head towards,” McLean said. “We’ve set (winning the regional) as a goal and we’ve got a chance to accomplish it.”

The Red Devils will get their chance at Zanesville’s Sulsberger Memorial Stadium against a sound and physical Johnstown-Monroe squad, which is also seeking its second regional title in school history.

St. Clairsville, which is a perfect 12-0, got to this point by virtue of victories against Harrison Central (41-6) and last week against Piketon (59-27).

In neither of the Red Devils’ opening two tournament victories has there been much of a celebration. It’s been business as usual for St. C., which is perfectly okay with McLean.

“We don’t want to sound cold-hearted or unappreciative of where we are because that’s not the case at all,” McLean said. “But, we’ve been trying to avoid over reacting to winning one. We want to keep it going because we’ve got bigger ideas and goals. We realize we have to win one week at a time and that’s the case again this week with a huge test.”

The Johnnies, meanwhile, are 10-2 on the season and have posted tournament victories against Indian Valley (24-21) and then routed second-seeded Ironton last week in Athens by a 42-7 count to advance to meet the Devils.

“When you’re playing in Week 13, there are no frontrunners or anything like that because all of the teams you’re playing are very, very good,” said Johnstown-Monroe head coach Mike Carter. “Our kids have really gelled and become a much tighter knit group of young men throughout the season. We realize the kind of challenge St. Clairsville is going to present to us.”

During the course of the regular season, the Johnnies were dealt setbacks by Division III playoff entrant Granville during week one, 39-20 and then in Week 8, they dropped a 42-35 setback to Danville, which is still alive in the Division VI, Region 23 tournament.

Don’t think for a minute that McLean or any member of the Red Devils’ squad will get caught looking ahead for one second.

“Our ultimate goal is starting to come into sight, but we can’t lose focus on what’s ahead because it’s a process,” McLean said. “We’ve warned these kids all along about not being satisfied and having a happy-to-be-there attitude. This is a very hungry, focused team that wants to keep this going as long as it can.”

The winner of Friday’s encounter will earn a berth in the Ohio Division IV Final Four and the state semifinals to be played on Nov. 23. The Region 15 champion will tangle with the Region 13 champion at a site to be determined by the OHSAA on Sunday.

The Region 13 final pits defending state champion Creston Norwayne (12-0) against Brookfield (12-0). All told, the Division IV tournament still has six teams remaining that have yet to taste defeat.

While the Johnnies knocked off Coshocton in last year’s regional final before bowing out, St. Clairsville hasn’t played for the regional title since 2007 when it dropped a tough decision to Williamsport Westfall at Gahanna Lincoln High School.

That game and appearance hasn’t sat well with McLean since.

“After that game, we felt, as a coaching staff, that we didn’t take advantage of some opportunities,” McLean said. “We talked coming home that night that we had to continue to work to get back to that point and then take the next step. Now, we’ve got that chance again. I’ve had people tell me to enjoy it. We certainly enjoy it, but we’re also looking at this as a business trip. We want to care of our business and if we do that, we feel as if we’ll enjoy it even more.”

Business resumed on the weekend for the coaches and Monday for the players as attention shifted to the Johnnies and their bruising running game.

The Red Devils allowed 27 points last week and will face another stiff challenge from a Johnnies’ offense that’s scored pointed in bunches all season. However, they go about it differently than Piketon did, which employed a spread attack.

“The competition gets better every week in the Ohio playoffs and that’s true again,” McLean said. “We’ll see a much different approach and attack this week because Johnstown really hangs its hat on the running game. That’s what they are.”

The Johnnies are averaging 331 yards per game on the ground and just 51.5 yards a week through the air, but not to be lost in the equation is that the Johnnies relied heavily on the pass in last week’s victory against Ironton.

“The situation arose that we were able to do some things with the pass,” Carter said. “It’s something we looked at and worked hard on during the week and it worked out for us.”

The Red Devils are gearing up for the run first as sophomore Cody Farley (5-10, 170) is the go-to-guy in the Johnnies’ backfield. Farley has ran for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns this season on 265 carries.

“I think their running back (Farley) is an excellent player,” McLean admitted. “Being just a sophomore, it’s pretty scary to think about what that kid’s going to look like in a few years.”

Senior Tyler Thompson triggers the offense from the quarterback position. He’s ran 146 times for 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns. Through the air, he’s passed 77 times, completing 31 for 596 yards and six touchdowns.

Senior Adam Carter is also a viable option from the fullback spot. He’s carried 104 times for 611 yards and eight touchdowns. All told, Johnstown has ran for 3,973 yards and 47 touchdowns.

Senior Nick Sadinsky is the Johnnies’ leading receiver with 10 catches for 263 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Corbin Grassman has caught nine passes for 138 yards.

“They run the ball so well that it opens up their passing game,” McLean said. “They’ve done that the past two weeks where they’ve ran play-action passes for big gains. They really do a nice job of taking advantage of what’s given to them.”

The Red Devils’ defense could be a bit shorthanded this week. Ben Coleman left last week’s game with a knee injury and McLean wasn’t sure of his status and St. C. is also dealing with a disciplinary issue after a player was ejected in last week’s game.

“We’re preparing as if we’re not going to have those kids,” McLean said.

St. C. will have all-district performers Luke Smith and Michael Ferns leading the way at the linebacker posts. Both are over 100 tackles and are coming off big games last week.

The Devils have also received solid play from Jerrid Marhefka, Corey Ernest, Colby Lindsay, Titus Lepic, Derek Shunk and countless others all season on the defensive side of the ball.

The Johnstown defense is allowing almost 17 points a game this season. It allowed a season-high 39 points in that aforementioned loss to Granville.

“St. Clairsville has a very fast and very athletic group of young men,” Carter said. “They fly around on both sides of the ball. They’ve got a lot of talented kids they can utilize offensively. It’s going to be a tough four quarters of football.”

When focusing on the Red Devils, teams have decisions to make. Should you focus on taking away junior jet Jaylon Brown or try to bring the heat on senior quarterback Matt Kinnick to take away the high-flying Red Devils’ passing game?

“I think you have to be solid all the way around,” Carter said. “We have to focus on the complete package as best we can. We have to be gap sound and our kids need to focus on defending their areas as far as whatever zone you have. Once you do that, you have to fly to the ball and be sure tacklers.”

Brown put on another clinic last week, scoring six touchdowns. All told, he’s carried the ball 145 times for 1,565 yards and 33 touchdowns. He’s scored 38 touchdowns this season.

Kinnick, who has received brilliant protection from the offensive front of Ernest, Cole Stephen, Joel Giffin, Tom Parker and Jay Gossett, has been impressive. He’s completed 103-of-164 passes for 2,301 yards and 30 touchdowns. He’s only thrown three interceptions.

In the passing game, seniors Dan Monteroso, who was named Eastern District Offensive Player of the Year earlier this week, and Marhefka are the go-to guys. Monteroso has caught 46 passes for 999 yards and 15 touchdowns. Marhefka has 20 receptions for 507 yards, which equates to better than 25 yards per catch. He’s scored five touchdowns.

The Michigan-bound Ferns is also an option as a ball carrier and pass catcher for the Red Devils. He’s got 479 yards of total offense and seven touchdowns.

“When I first looked at St. Clairsville, their big-play ability is what really jumped out at me,” Carter said. “We have to limit those plays and we need to control the ball offensively as best we can.”

The Johnnies’ defense, which has forced 28 turnovers, is led by Grassman at linebacker. He has recorded 121 tackles and four sacks. Junior Clayton Bullard (6-5, 200) has 106 tackles and an impressive 18 sacks from his defensive end post. Sadinsky roams in the secondary and has 92 tackles and six interceptions, while senior Daniel Mark Alemendinger has 70 tackles.

“They are super aggressive defensively,” McLean said. “We need to get a handle on that because they’ll bring pressure from all different angles in their base defense. I really think this will be the best defense we’ve faced all season. They’re big, fast and athletic.”

St. Clairsville’s offense has made a living on the quick scores, including last week when it had three, one-play scoring drives.

“We know those big plays are a luxury,” McLean said. “We also know we’re going to have to earn some points, too by grinding out some drives. We’ve been able to do that this season and we’ll need more of it.”

Both teams are solid in the kicking. Junior Charles Benton handles the placement duties for the Johnnies. He’s connected on 32 PATs and three field goals. Junior Zach Musilli has done the majority of the placekicking for the Devils. He’s nailed 60 PAT kicks and three field goals. Haylee Skukan has also been a solid second option with 15 PATs.