St. Clairsville finds itself 48 minutes from the coveted Week 15.
The 13-0 Red Devils will embark on their first football state tournament since 1986 Friday night when they make a nearly 2-hour bus trip to Massillon Washington High School for the Division IV state semifinals.
"Getting to this point in the season was certainly a goal of ours when we started back in August," said Red Devils' head coach Brett McLean. "Obviously, while it's a goal, you never know if it can actually come to fruition or not because you need some luck along the way and need to keep a bunch of 16 and 17 year old boys focused on the task at hand."
While the community and school are abuzz about the Red Devils, McLean, his coaches and team are keeping everything in perspective.
"Obviously, it feels great to be here, but we don't want to sit back and enjoy it right now," McLean said. "We'll get to that point sometime later in the winter. We're still going about it as a business type deal as we have the first 12 weeks of the season."
The task that lies ahead of the Red Devils will most certainly be their stiffest to date.
St. Clairsville will have to contend with defending Division IV state champion and fellow unbeaten Creston Norwayne at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
"There are only four teams left and you can't hide from anyone," McLean said. "Everyone is a good team at this point and we've obviously got a lot of respect for what Norwayne has accomplished both this season and last."
McLean and several of his coaches actually went to Massillon last December and watched Norwayne take out Kenton and 2011 Mr. Football Matty Mauck by a 48-42 count in a game thay many felt was the best game of the six that weekend in Stark County.
"Basically, the entire nucleus of that team is back," McLean said. "As you would expect, they're very good and we realize that."
The winner of the Red Devils and Bobcats battle will return to Stark County on Nov. 30 to play for the Division IV State Championship inside Canton's Fawcett Stadium at 3 p.m.
The other half of the Division IV bracket finds another meeting of unbeatens as Columbus Bishop Hartley tangles with Clarksville Clinton Massie at Northmont High School in Clayton.
McLean and his staff have done an exceptional job all season of keeping their players focused on the task at hand and he expects that to be no issue again this week.
"I think it would be much more difficult had these kids not been veterans or had success in the past," McLean said. "They understand how to handle success. We didn't put a bunch of pressure on the kids, but we didn't hide from the goals either. Early, early in the season, we set the state championship as a goal, and I don't know if can walk into your lockerroom at a school our size and feel that in your gut that that's a goal you can speak publically about."
En route to the state tournament, St. Clairsville has knocked off Harrison Central (41-6), Piketon (59-27) and then last week took out defending regional champion Johnstown-Monroe, 37-29.
The Red Devils found themselves in a bizarre situation last week. They had to play their first unit in the fourth quarter for the first time all season. They made plays down the stretch to eventually fend off the Johnnies.
"Last week tested our will," McLean said. "It got tight in the third quarter, but I was proud of how our kids stepped up to the plate per se and I think the kids reacted very well to that. We need to be prepared for that again this week."
Norwayne, which is located in Wayne County just 35 miles from Massillon, has had little trouble in reaching this point of the season. After cruising through the regular season, the Bobcats have dispatched West Salem Northwest (48-7), Youngstown Liberty (54-7) and then they last week took out top-seeded Brookfield in the Region 13 championship game, 49-28.
"We've talked a lot about this being a new year and a new team," said Norwayne head coach Joe Harbour, who is in his fourth season with the Bobcats. "We knew nothing was going to be given to us because we won it last year. Obviously, we'd love to repeat for our seniors, but we also know it's much harder to do it a second time."
Fans making the trip Friday night can expect to see many similarities between the two clubs.
Both units score points in bunches, utilize the spread attack, mix run and pass well and play sound defense.
Norwayne averages 52.3 points a game and gains better than 506 yards a week as it balances the run the pass. Similar to St. C., Norwayne has made a living with quick-strike drives and big plays.
"It's very difficult to prepare for and it's actually a nightmare for defensive coordinators because you have to defend the entire field," McLean said.
According to McLean, the Bobcats might be a little more wide-open spread than his Red Devils.
"They work more out of a spread grouping than we do," McLean said. "They've got multiple players across the board who have huge numbers and stats."
Junior quarterback Joe Dreher triggers the Bobcats' attack. He faced a tough task in August when he had to step in for the graduated Adam Wallace, who was a do-everything kind of guy in last season's run to the title.
Dreher has responded quite well. He's completed 208-of-301 passes for 3,611 yards and 40 touchdowns. He's been picked off just five times.
"The quarterback is also a capable runner, so it's tough because you can be in good position defensively, but he can pull it down and take off," McLean said. "I think it's a type of game where you need to approach it as if we know they're going to have some success and hit some plays, but we need to stay even keeled and not get down if they have a big play."
Norwayne features a trio of receivers with more than 30 catches. Senior Brady Berger is the Bobcats' big-play threat with 73 catches for 1,342 yards and 11 touchdowns. He averages 103.2 yards per game.
Senior Richie Smith is the second-leading receiver with 47 catches for 683 yards and nine touchdowns. Senior Mitch Knieriem is has made 39 receptions for 727 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"Their receivers are tall, fast kids who are really field stretchers," McLean observed. "These will probably be some of the best players we've played against during my tenure here, so it'll be a big challenge to slow them down. They're just exceptional."
The Bobcats' ground game features hard-nosed senior tailback Jon Zimmerly (5-10, 190), who has ran for 2,074 yards and 35 touchdowns despite battling hamstring issues much of the season. His hamstring actually flared up on him last week, forcing him to the sidelines.
"Zimmerly is a very, very capable tailback," McLean said.
However, Harbour has no doubt his senior will be ready to go on Friday.
"That hamstring has bothered him off and on since track season," Harbour said. "He was healthy and it came back in doubles. The last two games it's flared up again, so it's nothing new. It's a lot of wear and tear when you're in Week 14. We're doing everything we can to get him as healthy as possible because we'll certainly need him this week."
The Red Devils' defense has been one of the most unheralded groups. St. C. is allowing just under 17 points a game this season.
"St. Clairsville has great speed at the corners, they're pretty big and physical up front and they have a real stud at linebacker in number 10 (Michael Ferns) who runs well side to side. They're a lot like us in that they have a lot of great athletes on both sides of the ball."
The Red Devils' defense does start with their linebacking corps. The Michigan commit Ferns is joined by St. C. leading tackler Luke Smith.
St. C. will receive a lift on both sides of the ball as senior Cole Stephen returns to the lineup at linebacker and center after missing last week's regional final. Justin Callarik has also joined the starting lineup after an injury has sidelined Ben Coleman. Dalton Nolte also turned in a strong game last week, recording 13 tackles and a sack.
The Devils' secondary, which will surely be tested, is led by senior Jerrid Marhefka with seven interceptions. Boston College bound Dan Monteroso lines up at the opposite corner spot, while senior Titus Lepic is the free safety.
Last week, the St. C. front four played exceptionally well with defensive ends Jay Gossett and Colby Lindsay leading the way. Gossett was in on 17 tackles last week and leads the team with seven sacks. Seniors Derek Shunk and Corey Ernest, get the call at the defensive tackle spots.
The Norwayne defense has been impressive, allowing just 9.2 points a week and prior to last week's game it hadn't allowed more than 13 points in a game.
"They're very, very good on defense, too," McLean said. "The biggest challenge for us will be how they try to lock you down and cover you. If they play zone, they light you up when you catch the ball. Their much like Johnstown with their front and linebackers. Plus, they're super fast and super aggressive. Someone said in our coaches' meeting, 'well, you didn't expect to turn this tape on and see a bad team, did you?' There's some real truth to that, too."
Norwayne's pass defense is led by a talented secondary that has produced 24 interceptions this season. Knieriem is the leader with eight picks and he's taken three back for scores. Senior Brady Berger is also a key contributor with four interceptions.
Zimmerly is a standout at the linebacker spot.
The Norway defense will be facing its stiffest challenge to date, too, however against the Red Devils' high-powered attack that averages 49 points and more than 400 yards a game.
"They're really a lot like us because they're so balanced," Harbour noted. "They have a couple of excellent receivers, the quarterback is very mobile when he has to be and the running back looks like an exceptional player. You can't key on one thing because if you take away the pass, they'll run and vice versa."
Senior quarterback Matt Kinnick has been outstanding all season for the Red Devils. He's completed 118-of-194 passes for 2,561 yards and 34 touchdowns. He's been picked off just three times. He's also ran for five scores.
Junior blazer Jaylon Brown leads the ground assault with 42 carries for 1,707 yards and 33 touchdowns. Ferns is one of the more versatile offensive weapons for the Red Devils. He's carried the ball for 281 yards and three scores and caught 13 balls for 224 yards and five touchdowns.
When Kinnick goes to the air, Monteroso is the go-to-guy. He's caught 49 passes for 1,075 yards and 15 touchdowns. Marhefka, who is coming off his best game of the season, has made 25 receptions for 619 yards and seven touchdowns. Brown is also an adept pass catcher with 14 receptions for 311 yards and three touchdowns.
Another unheralded aspect of the Red Devils is their offensive front. Stephen, Ernest, Joel Giffin, Nick VanVoltenburg, Tom Parker and Gossett comprise the line that's paved the way for the big numbers.
Both teams are solid in special teams. Junior Zach Musilli has knocked home 64 PATs and four field goals for the Red Devils. Norwayne has employed two kickers. Senior Cody Hilty has booted 49 PATs, while sophomore Kollin Moore has drilled 33 PATs and a field goal.