Shadyside set to welcome Symmes Valley in D-VII

• Tigers enter 21st playoff appearance as third seed

SHADYSIDE — Shadyside qualifying for the state football playoffs is becoming a staple of fall in Belmont County. By virtue of their 7-3 record against a very formidable schedule, the Tigers will be playing in the postseason for the 21st time come Saturday night. It will be their 15th consecutive playoff appearance.

Shadyside, which finished third in Division VII, Region 27, will welcome No. 6 Willow Wood Symmes Valley (9-1) to Fleming Field in a quarterfinal encounter. Kickoff is set for 7. The winner moves on to the regional semifinals. It will be the third meeting between the schools — all in the first round of the playoffs — with the Orange-and-Black prevailing in both prior contests — 1989 and 2005.

The Vikings are in the postseason for the 12th time in school history. They captured the Southern Ohio Conference championship and are 3-11 all-time in playoff action, but haven’t qualified since 2014.

“They are Red-and-Gray and from Lawrence County, although I couldn’t tell you where that is,” veteran Shadyside head coach Mark Holenka said of Symmes Valley. “I do know it’s about a three-and-a-half hour drive, which is good for us.”

Shadyside, whose three setbacks have come to playoff-bound squads Bellaire, Mogadore and Wheeling Central, is getting healthy at the right time, although it still isn’t 100 percent healthy.

“I really think it helps us at this time of the year, but I don’t think it helps us during the year. A lot of people say it’s great when you play a season that gets you ready for the postseason, but you hope that season doesn’t overload you so you can get to the postseason, No. 1. No. 2, you hope you can get to the postseason healthy when you play a rugged schedule. There’s good and bad, but at this point you can start reaping the benefits of the good,” Holenka explained.

“We’re as healthy as we can be at this time. The one injury isn’t fixable by the end of the season in (Mason) VanNest’s case,” he noted of the two-way sophomore performer who broke his collarbone. “We’ve also got Cam Brown out. He had (knee) surgery Monday. We’ve dealt with his situation for half the year and Mason for two-and-a-half games now, so it’s time to move on, but everybody should have those type of problems at this point in the season.”

The Tigers offense is a young, but improving, group with an all-underclass backfield. Junior fullback Jacob Visnic is the veteran as he played key roles on both sides of the ball when the Tigers advanced to last season’s regional finals in Division VI. The quarterback — Rhys Francis — and tailback — Wyatt Reiman — are just sophomores.

In his first season as the Tigers field general, the 6-0, 160-pound Francis has completed 56.3 percent (89-158) of his passes for 1,679 yards. He has thrown 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also has one rushing TD.

“It’s sort of like a pulse. There’s growth where we are moving up, then you hit that pulse. That’s the growing process with a sophomore,” Holenka noted. “Hopefully, we can get more stabilization and keep it up at a higher point.

“You’ve got to want to learn and you’ve got to be a sponge. The more you can absorb the better. He has all the talent he just needs to be a sponge to keep on improving.”

When Francis takes to the air, his top target has been senior Kelly Hendershot with 29 receptions for 482 yards and three touchdowns. However, Hendershot, an all-Ohioan as a junior, missed several games with an injury. Reiman leads the team with 530 receiving yards and half-a-dozen TDs on 22 catches. Junior Jordan Joseph has snagged 12 passes for 318 yards and a trio of six-pointers, while senior tight end Sam Merryman has 11 catches for 149 stripes.

“The passing game, as far as Rhys is concerned, starts up front. The guys have to be able to block so that he’s not panicking and running out of the pocket,” Holenka explained. “Then, when you have receivers like we do in Kelly and Jordan, that also helps a young quarterback.

“That’s why it is a team game. There’s been a lot of good running backs (in college) that don’t make it to the pros because they couldn’t block. Sometimes you’ve got to block for your partner on running plays, naturally, and sometimes you have to block on pass plays. They’ve got potential to be great blockers because of the way they are built. (Jacob) Visnic is built like a sherman tank at times and Reiman is a wiry, hard-nosed kid.”

The Tigers offensive line includes sophomore center Logan Crozier.

“He’s in the same boat as Francis and Reiman,” Holenka pointed out. “You’ve got a sophomore quarterback, a sophomore center and a sophomore tailback … straight up the gut you’re all sophomores. Hopefully, they have that peak game at the right time together. They need to keep growing together and that’s called chemistry.”

The guards are senior Ryan Cain and junior Mason Geraud. Senior Matt Lucey and junior Jalob Honeywell will also see action. At one tackle is senior Caleb Davis, with Cain moving out there some. Senior Caleb Honeywell and sophomore Gage Joseph are also options.

“Merryman has been fighting through some injuries but he’s not the type to let you know it,” Holenka advised of the recent Youngstown State commit as a long snapper. “He brings us stability and experience at tight end.”

Junior Alec Shepherd has taken over VanNest’s spot as another wideout.

“Shep is coming in as the No. 3 guy now. He’s done well.”

Shepherd has caught three passes for 16 yards.

Holenka, who has made the playoffs every year in his tenure in Tiger Town, said his team’s run defense will be tested by the Vikings run-oriented wishbone attack.

“They like to run the ball first and foremost. They play the type of game where the pass is secondary to them,” Holenka acknowledged. “They’re going to run it, run it and run it until you stop them. They run from the wishbone. You’ve got to keep them out of that four-down territory because once they cross the 50-yard line, they have no intentions on punting the ball because they are going to try and grind it out.

“We need to make sure we take them out of their element and make them have to throw the ball,” he continued. “We need to force them to throw when we know they are throwing rather than enable them to throw by catching us by surprise or off guard by us thinking it’s a power run off the bone and the tight end is wide open because we’re sucked up. We need to make it predictable when they pass.”

According to Symmes Valley head coach Rusty Webb, the Vikings have only put the ball in the air 35 times this season, completing 18 of them.

“We’ve run the wishbone ever since I’ve been here,” Webb said, noting that he was an assistant from 1996-2000 before assuming the head coaching position. “We’ve tinkered with the wing-T, but we’ve always gone back to the wishbone.”

Junior Josh Ferguson leads the rushing game with more than 1,000 yards this season.

“He’s our home run hitter,” Webb admitted. “He can take it all the way from anywhere on the field, but he can also run between the tackles.”

The quarterback is senior Jack Leith. He threw a pair of touchdowns to younger brother, Luke, in a 22-16 come-from-behind victory over McDermott Northwest in the regular-season finale.

“We’re a very young team with only five seniors on the team,” Webb said. “You always enter every season with high expectations. These younger kids got a lot of valuable game experience last year when we went 4-6. However, we were 4 or 5 plays away from being 7-3. The kids have built off of that momentum and here we are at 9-1.”

He said that Shadyside will be the best team his squad has played.

“They are the most balanced team, offensively, that we’ve faced all year,” he advised. “We usually play teams that all they do is run the ball or we play teams that all they do is pass the ball. Shadyside does both and does both well. Defensively, we’re in for a challenge, but it’s a challenge that our kids are willing to accept.”

Shadyside’s defense has bent at times this season, but hasn’t entirely broke in any game. It has yielded 12.4 points per contest, which includes two shutouts, one coming against fellow OVAC playoff participant Shenandoah (27-0). Only four times has an opponent reached double figures, with three of those resulting in losses. The fourth came last week against Monroe Central.

“Really, Monroe Central was probably one of our worst games defensively. We gave up the third most points to them behind Mogadore and Wheeling Central. That was kind of a letdown, but we’ve got to keep our focus,” Holenka said. “We can’t score and then let teams come right back and answer. We’ve got to be able to score when they score on us. That was a downfall in some of our losses.

“Our defense has the ability to rise to the occasion at times, but sometimes after we score we’ll take that relaxation phase and let them score. Then we get tough again, but we’ve got to be tough from the beginning and neutralize the opponents testosterone that’s going to bring them down the field after we’ve scored. Once you neutralize it for one series, it usually levels off.”

Merryman and sophomore Ryan Florence are the defensive ends, with Lucey moving out there at times. The tackles are a combination of Cain, Gage Joseph, Davis, Geraud or Caden Honeywell.

The linebackers are the strength of the defense with Visnic, Reiman and leading tackler senior Jakob Klug, who has recorded 46 solo tackles, 48 assists, four tackles for losses and 2.5 quarterback sacks. He also has charted four fumble recoveries, forced a fumble, blocked a kick and intercepted a pass.

“Those are three quality linebackers,” Holenka praised.

The cornerbacks are Jordan Joseph and Shepherd or Francis, while Hendershot and Shepherd or Francis man the safeties.

Shadyside has a weapon in junior placekicker Angel Velasquez.

“He’s a nice weapon to have as long as we give him protection,” Holenka said. “He has gotten a lot stronger since he first came here as far as his ability to kick field goals from a further distance. His kickoffs are close to the end zone. If he can get some height on them, we can pin the opposition inside their 10.

“As far as field goals go, I think from 25 (yards) and in we’re confident in him.”

In addition to the aforementioned blanking of Shenandoah, Shadyside’s other victories have come against Martins Ferry, Magnolia, River, Vinton County, Bridgeport and Monroe Central.

Meanwhile, Symmes Valley was defeating South Gallia, Fairfield Christian Academy, Fairview (Ky.), Sciotoville East (twice), Green, Eastern and Notre Dame, in addition to the aforementioned McDermott Northwest. It only loss came at the hands of Chesapeake, a D-V school.


∫ Shadyside is 31-20 all-time in postseason play. The 31 wins are the third most without a state championship in state history behind Massillon Washington (35) and Mentor (32).

∫ Symmes Valley finished 12th in the final Division VII Associated Press poll with 15 points, The Tigers weren’t listed.