St. Clairsville must contend with Bloom-Carroll in D-IV
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Each rung up the ladder of the Ohio postseason presents a different and stiffer challenge than the one before.
As it pertains to the Division IV, Region 15 semifinals, St. Clairsville is as excited about that as ever. Because, to hear Brett McLean tell it, that and the constant studying of the new opponents are what makes the football tournament fun.
“It’s all part of the process,” McLean said. “The Ohio playoffs are a war of attrition and hopefully we’re able to build on some of the experiences we’ve had in the past. Every day is crucial leading up to kicking it off.”
The fun will become the challenge Saturday evening when the Red Devils seek to make it 12 consecutive victories this season when they play at Zanesville’s Sulsberger Memorial Stadium against fourth-seeded Bloom-Carroll. Kickoff is slated is for 7 and the winner will advance to the regional championship game against the survivor of Indian Valley and Licking Valley.
“Bloom-Carroll is impressive,” McLean offered. “They’re fast at all positions and they’re very similar to Fairland in their approach offensively.”
The Red Devils got to this point by virtue of a 34-6 victory against Proctorville Fairland last weekend at Red Devil Stadium. Meanwhile, Bloom-Carroll — a perennial baseball power in the Buckeye State — was taking care of Chillicothe Unioto, 38-7, on its home field. That win gave the Bulldogs their first playoff win in school history and it continued a team that may be a bit ahead of schedule in terms of it success.
The underclass-dominated Bulldogs were coming off a playoff appearance in 2017, but lost 15 seniors, 11 of whom were crucial contributors, to graduation.
“We knew coming into the season we had some talented kids, but we had a lot of question marks, too,” Bloom-Carroll head coach Wade Bartholomew said. “In terms of our expectations for this season, we really thought that if we could stay on the winning side at maybe 6-4 or 7-3 and sneak into the playoffs, it would be a great year.”
The Bulldogs eventually finished 8-2, losing to Division II playoff entrant Teays Valley and a decisive, 59-9, setback to Columbus Academy. However, their eight wins were enough to propel them to their first Mid-State League title in 28 years.
“If you would have told me last December that we’d be in the second round of the playoffs and league champs, I would have laughed,” Bartholomew admitted. “I thought we were built for (success in) 2019, but our kids have played well and done everything asked of them. We’re excited to be here, but not content either.”
Meanwhile, last Saturday’s victory was the 14th playoff victory in the Red Devil’s illustrious history, which has included three regional titles.
“St. Clairsville is very well coached and if you look back at their history, they’re a program that’s always in the playoffs,” Bartholomew said. They’re a tradition-laden program.”
While Bloom didn’t return a lot in terms of quantity of experience, it did boast the return of an all-Ohioan at quarterback in junior Otto Kuhn, who has been brilliant all season. The 6-4, 190 pounder is drawing the eye of numerous FBS programs, including Pitt, Louisville and Michigan State to name a few. Though he doesn’t own an offer, Bartholomew believes he’s close.
“Otto sets the tone for us,” Bartholomew said. “He has great leadership qualities and shows up to compete every day and get better.”
On the field, there isn’t a lot Kuhn isn’t capable of. He’s thrown for 2,093 yards and 23 touchdowns, while racking up a team-high 967 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground from the Bulldogs’ empty-backfield and spread system.
“He’s a big, athletic kid who spreads the ball around do different receivers and multiple backs, so they give a whole lot to defend,” McLean said. “In a lot of ways, they remind us of Meadowbrook and Indian Creek in terms of their speed, athleticism and the way they come after you on defense. They have the capability of scoring points in bunches.”
To prove how much Kuhns spreads the ball around, he’s thrown a touchdown to 12 different receivers this season and his leading pass catcher, junior Josh Evans, has made 32 receptions for 455 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Sophomore Evan Willet is another to keep an eye on along with senior senior Gavin Powers.
“Evan is a kid who is not afraid to go underneath or across the middle and Gavin is our vertical threat, who can run by people,” Barthlomew said.
Once they got the first drive and a feel for the speed under their belts last week against Fairland, St. Clairsville’s defense played outstanding. Justice McCamick and Isaak Myers made life tough on Joel Lambiotte with their pass rush. Craig Bober, who hadn’t played hardly any defense all season, had two picks and talented sophomore defensive back Tyler Tonkovich also had an interception. Senior Kyle Storer — a tackle machine for the Red Devils — was also impressive from his linebacker post. Luke Ewing and Noah Trubiano also drew McLean’s attention.
“Our personnel is the big key,” McLean said. “We have to be able to make plays in space because they’re fast and hard to get a good, solid hit on. We need to react on the fly, so being able to move and taking good angles is the big key.”
Barthlomew, who played his prep ball at Williamsport Westfall and actually lined up in a tournament game as a senior against Bellaire at Zanesville in 2006 a season before the Mustangs dispatched St. C. in a regional final, knows his team is going to have to be ready to block to provide Kuhn time.
“They’re quick and athletic up front,” Bartholomew said. “They’re very skilled at getting off blocks. We have to stress to our kids this week that these kids won’t give up after the initial block. The play may last more than the normal two to three seconds and we have to block that way.”
As Bartholomew watched St. Clairsville this week on film, he came away like most coaches knowing they need to stop the run. However, he also acknolwedges that knowing what to do and executing it can be vastly different.
“There are no gimmicks or tricks,” the Bloom-Carroll coach said. “They’re going to do what they do. We need to get a lot of guys to the ball and tackle as a team.”
Bloom-Carroll is trying to find a way to slow down senior standout Brady Kolb, who has been impressive all season. The rugged runner has rushed an astounding 242 times for 1,649 yards and 27 touchdowns. His workload has increased the last few weeks because of the injury to Justin Heatherington.
“I was impressed with Kolb in seeing him on film and then I looked at the roster and saw he weighs 245 pounds and I got scared,” Bartholomew said. “To move as well as he does at that size is impressive. A patient runner, at that size, is terrifying.”
When Kolb gets a breather, the running work shifts to senior Aaron Jordan and his freshman brother Jacob Jordan, who have combined for 433 yards and 5 touchdowns.
St. Clairsville’s offense is more balanced than it appears. Senior quarterback Dustin Carrothers has been an outstanding game manager, while throwing for 1,032 yards and 9 touchdowns against just one interception.
In the passing game, Bober is the primary target. His 6-5 frame has been utilized 19 times for 318 yards and 3 touchdowns. Storer, who has worn several hats for the offense, caught a touchdown from the tight end spot last week in a wrinkle that the Devils hadn’t shown much.
“I don’t think anyone has too much left in the playbook at this point since there’s really no tomorrow,” McLean said. “You can’t leave anything on the shelf. We need to play within ourselves offensively though and we can’t afford mistakes.”
Much of the St. C. offensive success has been predicated on a large, talented and athletic offensive line that features junior Javon Lyons (right tackle), Avery Henry (right guard), Chase Espen (center), Austin Angus (left guard), Trey Delguzzo (left tackle) and Trey Elerick (tight end).
Bloom-Carroll’s defense is led by senior Zach Collins, who has shifted from linebacker down to a line spot. Hobie Scarberry and Trace Wisecarver are the leaders at the linebacking corps and freshman Eli Coppess is the top defensive back with four interceptions.
Both teams possess quality kicking games. St. Clairsville received a lift with the return of junior Jake Bolyard a week ago. Junior Cameron Shirkey handles the kicking duties for the Bulldogs. He has connected on 9-of-12 field goals with a long of 42. And he also has 25 touchbacks to his credit.