STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — A storm is headed toward the eastern part of the Buckeye State this weekend, the kind that has never been seen before in Ohio.
It’s history in the making for the Southern football team Saturday night when the Tornadoes travel to Steubenville Catholic Central for the program’s first-ever playoff contest in a Division VII, Region 25 quarterfinal at Harding Stadium in Jefferson County.
The fifth-seeded Tornadoes (8-2) will be making their postseason gridiron debut after putting together an historic regular season, which included five shutouts and a school record for wins. The 2013 campaign — which saw SHS finish third in the TVC Hocking at 6-2 — was also just the second winning season for the Purple and Gold since the turn of the millennium, bettering the 6-4 squad from 2006.
Unlike all of the other teams that came before them, this group of Tornadoes have found ways to consistently get it done on the gridiron. SHS has outscored opponents by 301-94 clip through 10 weeks, thanks in large part to a power running game and a defense that is plus-15 in turnover differential this fall.
And, like the rest of this season, the Tornadoes are once again preparing for another 48-minute battle — one against an opponent that is a little more familiar with these postseason surroundings.
“All of the coaches are going over every little detail, trying to dot every I and cross every T. We’ve seen three films on them and we also saw them in person,” fourth-year SHS coach Kyle Wickline said. “We’re all working really hard here, and the kids are continuing to buy in to what we are doing for our weekly game plan — which is pretty much what they’ve done all year.
“This is a good time to be a head coach, that’s for sure. Everybody is motivated because it is the biggest football game of our lives. We want to make sure that we are prepared to play a really good game against a really good team in Steubenville Catholic Central.”
The fourth-seeded and host Crusaders (8-2) will be making their 11th playoff appearance in program history, as well as their second straight postseason run for the first time since the 2004-05 campaigns. SCCHS won the 1993 Division V championship and also had Final Four appearances in 1991 and 2005.
Steubenville Catholic Central — which has an alltime record of 11-9 in the postseason — is coached by Steve Daley, who is 17-14 overall and 0-1 in playoff games in three seasons at the helm.
The Crusaders have outscored opponents by a 425-132 overall margin, pitching two shutouts and allowing 10 points or less in half of those regular season matchups. SCCHS has twice scored a season-high 62 points this fall, but also enters the postseason with a two-game losing skid after winning its first eight games.
But don’t let those two losses fool you. The Crusaders dropped a 22-17 decision at Class A top-ranked Madonna in Week 9 and suffered a 24-0 setback at home to Magnolia last weekend. Madonna and Magnolia were both eliminated by eventual state champion Wahama last year in the Class A Final Four.
Steubenville Catholic Central started the year with 21 returning letterwinners, 15 seniors and 12 starters back on a roster that goes 42 players deep. And although a majority of what SCCHS does centers around four-year starting quarterback Brenton Colabella, the Crusaders are far from a one-trick pony.
“They throw the ball a bunch and they have some athletic playmakers to go along with a power running game. They are pretty quick and use a lot of different formations to get people open, so we have to make tackles in space. They are here for a reason, just like us,” Wickline said. “We really have to focus on what we do and what got us here. We have to run the ball and move the chains offensively. We need to react and make plays on defense, and we need to execute on special teams. Just like the previous 10 weeks.”
Colabella (6-3, 190) entered the 2013 campaign with 5,551 career passing yards and has shown no signs of slowing down in his final year with the Blue and Gold, as the senior has completed 116-of-179 pass attempts for 1,883 yards — including 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Khalil Jones (5-9, 155) is the team’s leading rusher, as the senior is averaging over 11 yards per carry after producing 628 yards and 13 touchdowns on 55 attempts. Senior Ryan Fletcher (6-0, 180) has 40 totes for 355 yards and five TDs, while junior Stone Romano (5-11, 205) has chipped in 289 yards and eight TDs on 29 attempts.
Fletcher leads the Crusader wideouts with 26 catches for 540 yards and 12 touchdowns, followed by senior Aleks Porreca (5-10, 170) with 20 grabs for 412 yards and two scores. Sophomore Seth Potenzini (5-9, 150) also has 15 catches for 156 yards and a TD.
Senior John Paul McNamara (5-9, 145) has also converted 43 of the Crusaders’ 54 extra-point kicks, with Romano converting the other 11. In all, SCCHS has five different players — excluding Colabella — that have scored 36 or more points this season.
Steubenville Catholic Central has surrendered just 2,259 yards defensively this fall, including 1,512 rushing yards and 747 yards through the air. Conversely, the Crusaders have produced 3,716 yards of total offense — with 1,816 coming on the ground and 1,900 coming through the air.
SCCHS possesses a 1-2 overall record against winning teams this year, while the Tornadoes are slightly better with a 2-2 mark. Three of Southern’s five shutouts also came in road contests, while the Crusaders had one shutout at home and another on the road.
Southern enters Week 11 with 2,403 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on 416 carries, an average of 5.8 yards per attempt. SHS has outgained opponents by a 3,175-1,895 overall margin in total yards and has allowed just 1,349 rushing yards and 10 TDs on 354 totes as a defense — an average of 3.8 yards per try.
Senior Tyler Barton guides the Tornado ground game with 1,342 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on 182 carries. Paul Ramthun is next for the backs with 229 yards and three scores on 36 carries, while Ryan Billingsley has 191 yards and three scores on 39 rushes.
Quarterback Tristen Wolfe has accounted for over 1,000 yards of offense this season. The junior has rushed for 267 yards and six TDs on 67 carries and is also 52-of-110 for 762 passing yards, including 11 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Hunter Johnson leads the wideouts with 18 catches for 303 yards and three touchdowns, followed by Trenton Deem with nine grabs for 107 yards. In all, five different SHS receivers have caught a TD pass this year.
The Tornadoes are 31-of-45 overall on PAT conversions, with Deem leading the way with 30-of-39 PAT kicks converted. SHS has one defensive TD and one special teams touchdown this year and is also 0-for-1 on its only two-point conversion attempt this fall.
Southern has outscored its opponents in all four quarters this season, including a large 94-19 discrepancy in the opening 12 minutes. SHS also owns edges of 97-34, 49-20 and 61-21 through the final three frames, respectively.
Southern is well known for supporting its high school teams, and with this being the football team’s first trip to the playoffs — there should be a large Meigs County following in the stands Saturday night.
“I sense that the community is pretty fired up about this weekend, and I think a lot of people are going to be there wearing purple,” Wickline said. “This is something that doesn’t come around every year. I’m certainly hoping that they are there, and the kids need them there for some support — hopefully on the way to a victory.”
Wickline — who is 16-24 overall in four years as Southern football coach — has watched his win total double from 2-8 to 4-6 to 8-2 over the last two seasons. He’s also given up assistant positions with baseball and basketball over the past few years to primarily focus on making this football dream a reality at his alma mater.
The Tornadoes are one of the top 10 winningest basketball programs in Ohio history and the baseball team has been to the last seven regional tournaments. And now, the football program is getting in on the act.
“As a player, as an assistant and now as a head coach, after all of these years at Southern — it sure is nice to experience this after so many seasons of 1-9 and 2-8. I was fortunate, I played on a pair of 5-5 teams in high school,” Wickline said. “When these kids go into the school and look up into the rafters, they will see the one thing that’s been missing from all of those other postseason banners.
“I think we’re all proud to be part of making history, rather it be the players, the coaches, the fans or the community. It’s something that will always be with us.”
Kickoff of the historic Southern-Steubenville Catholic Central contest will happen Saturday night at 7 p.m.