River hopes for better fate in Athens than in ’97

HANNIBAL — River’s football fans will certainly know the route to Basil Rutter Field in Athens tonight. However, they may not recognize the place when they get there.

It’s been a while since the Pilots have ventured to the recently remodled facility in The Plains.

Actually, it’s been 20 years since the Pilots set sail for Athens County for a football tournament game.

“Hopefully this one turns out a little better for us than the last one,” Terry Snively — a current Pilot assistant and the former head coach — said earlier this week of a 13-6 loss to Lucasville Valley in the regional semifinals.

It was Snively’s team that posted a perfect 10-0 regular season, won the OVAC and earned the top seed in the Division V, Region 19 tournament at a time when only four times qualified for the postseason.

“That was a good group of kids that really hung together,” Snively said. “They hung around each other, socialized together and we played a different kind of schedule back then.”

According to quarterback Mike Gehrig, who was a senior on the team, the Class of 1998 players realized early on that they had some potential.

“We had 11 or 12 guys in the class that had started and been playing together since we were in (junior high) and our only loss as freshmen came to Linsly, so we thought we could be decent down the road,” Gehrig said.

During the course of the season, the Pilots found themselves in some murky waters, especially in Week six against Martins Ferry. After defeating Meadowbrook (21-0), Tyler (34-13), Monroe Central (6-0), Magnolia (13-7) and Belpre (48-7) to hit the mid-way point, the Pilots prepared for the Purple Riders, who were led by Chad Brinker.

“We had a few close games,” Snively said. “Probably for the fans’ sake, the best game was the Martins Ferry game. The kids just seemed to find a way.”

With the Purple Riders’ game in the rear-view mirror, the Pilots reeled off victories against Newton Falls (34-20), Barnesville (55-8), Wheeling Central (19-7) and then closed with a convincing 55-13 victory over rival Shadyside.

“We expected a battle in that game against Shadyside, but we just kind of jumped on them,” Snively said. “Against Barnesville, I believe we scored the first five times we had the ball.”

Though the Pilots celebrated on Flannery Field as OVAC champions and with a perfect regular season, the work wasn’t done.

After learning their seed, the Pilots were informed they were headed to Athens to take on Lucasville Valley.

While the Pilots spent all week preparing for Lucasville, they didn’t have an opportunity to prepare for what was ahead during the game in terms of Mother Nature. As the Pilots were wrapping up their pre-game meal in Marietta and preparing to board their buses, it began it rain. It didn’t quit raining either.

“It absolutely poured in Athens that night,” Gehrig said. “We played Central on the Island and that was the only time we played in the rain all season.”

The Pilots — despite the weater — had their way with Valley in terms of the stat sheet. However, it produced two “big plays,” including an interception return for a touchdown.

“We basically dominated them in every aspect of the game,” Gehrig said. “We outgained them, had more first downs, possessed the ball longer, it was just one sided. It just wasn’t our time.”

The table for that season was set long before 1997, according to Gehrig.

At the varsity level, River went 8-2, 8-2 and then 5-5 to set up the 1997 season.

“After the Shadyside game (in Week 10) our junior year, we got together and decided it was time to start,” Gehrig recalled. “We started lifting in mid November and everyone was dedicated and wanted to achieve the same thing. We developed the mindset to go out and win football games and everyone got along well and no one cared who did what.”

Quite simply, all of those ingredients are crucial to successful teams, regardless of sport, level or year.

The Pilots 1997 squad also included: Stanley Stalder, Jay Saner, Steve Lallathin, Ben Frye, Ed Trifinoff, Justin Isaly, Matt Caldwell, Steve Cecil, Jonathan Moser, Steve Horn, Matt Corwin, Josh Rosen, Eric Yonley, Ed Conley, Marty Ramsay, Todd Fry, Gene Schmidt, Brandon Heslep, Tony Ensinger, Jesse Howard, Mike ISaly, Mark Isaly, Nathan Pletcher, Jonathan Riethmiller, Brian Blatt, Tom Frye, Aaron Stalder, Justin Mozena, Ross Ogilbee, Seth Tolzda, Greg Gehrig, Justin Wolfe, Matt Walters and Aaron Lee.

Snively’s coaching staff consisted of Mark Holenka, Tom Tisher, Mark Romick, Bob Strawn, Chuck Baker, Bob Cicogna and Tim Frye.