STEUBENVILLE - Reno Saccoccia knows his Big Red is in for "a great challenge" when it goes toe-to-toe with Youngstown Cardinal Mooney Friday in the Division IV semifinals.
"Mooney is a very good program," Saccoccia said earlier this week. "Playing them is a great challenge for us. We've played them tough a couple of times but that's all in the past. Our focus is on this team and we are the regional champions.
"We're going to go out there and play and coach to the best of our ability. They'll have to stick a fork in us to beat us."
The tradition-rich programs will bring 9-4 marks into Friday's game, set to start at 7:30 p.m. inside Canton's Fawcett Stadium. Kenton, 13-0, and Clarksville Clinton-Massie, 12-1 and the defending Division IV champion, will collide in the other semifinal. That game is scheduled for Dayton's Welcome Stadium.
In winning the Region 13 title, Big Red, which earned the eighth seed, topped No. 1 seed Newark Licking Valley 21-14, fourth-seeded Maysville 22-20 and Indian Valley, the second seed, 17-14. The Red came from behind in all three of its victories.
"Given their history and their success in the past, you sure as heck wouldn't have been counting them out in that region," Mooney coach P.J. Fecko told the Youngstown Vindicator. "I think a lot of people get caught up in what spot you're in, 1-8, which really doesn't matter. Just because they were an eight-seed sure as heck doesn't mean they weren't capable of winning the whole thing."
Mooney was the three seed in Region 11. The Cardinals opened with a 45-20 win over Cleveland John Hay before smashing Struthers 42-14 in the semifinals. Mooney earned its title by overcoming an early 14-0 deficit to clip Cleveland Benedictine 28-21.
"It's a great feeling," Saccoccia stated about winning the region. "I think it's probably the best regional championship we've ever won. I don't mean to slight anyone with that comment; I'm just expressing our feelings about this year."
Following the Week 9 loss to Wheeling Park, Big Red's playoff hopes were on life support. Saccoccia's crew snapped a rare three-game losing streak by beating Renaissance Christian Academy in the regular season finale and earned the school's 13th straight trip to the post-season.
"I never really give my coaches enough credit, because, in part, they really don't expect it," Saccoccia noted. "They work hard every week, every game and every year. It wasn't the X's and O's they were superlative at this year; it was keeping the guys' mental attitudes as high as they needed to be.
"Every time a kid went out, the coaches put the next kid in, coached him up and every Friday night we were ready. We had a very hard week of preparation going into our 10th game. We had just lost our fourth game and we were 5-4. The coaches were in a tough position. They had to get our kids mentally prepared and ready to play RCA. We did our job, we won the game and then we got help from others. We dug ourselves out of a grave."
Saccoccia continued by saying "I want to thank our coaches for the job they've done this season."
As far as the run to a regional title goes, Saccoccia credits "youthful enthusiasm" along with the right amount experience.
"With our young players, you get enthusiasm and good things happen with enthusiasm," he pointed out. "That enthusiasm covered up a lot of the mistakes we made in the first two playoff games. Then some older guys came back and they've been there before.
"It's been a combination of younger guys who haven't been there with enthusiasm and older guys with experience. Experience and enthusiasm go a long way. That's just what we got into."
Saccoccia described Big Red's final four opponent as "a typical Mooney team."
"They play with heart, determination and they have great coaching," he stated. "They beat a very good Ursuline team and they've played an outstanding schedule. We both have been beaten by some very good teams. Their 6-4 record was a lot different than our 6-4 season."
The Cardinal losses came to Imhotep Charter out of Philadelphia (currently 10-1), Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (13-0 and still alive in the Division III playoffs), Lakewood St. Edward (11-1 and a Division I semifinalist) and Austintown Fitch (which finished 12-1).
Big Red fell to Salesianum, which is 10-1 and still alive in the Delaware Division I playoffs, Wheeling Park (11-1 and playing in the West Virginia Class AAA semifinals), Massillon, which finished 9-3, and Ursuline, which reached the Division V playoffs.
"Playing a very difficult schedule prepares us for the playoffs and we've been able to make a run," Fecko said. "I don't buy into what records say or what seed anyone is in. The quality of schedule is very important and we play a very good schedule that prepares us. Our guys understand they need to compete at a high level and they've gone out and performed."
Mooney has two key rushing threats in senior Mark Handel and junior C.J. Amill. Both have rushed for more than 1,000 yards and average more than six yards per trip. In the win over Benedictine, Handel gained 140 and scored on a 71-yard sprint. Amill added 111 and crossed the goal via a 52-stripe jaunt.
Handel, who has scored 15 touchdowns, also leads the team in receiving. Amill has found the end zone 10 times. Quarterback Jon Saadey has thrown for more than 1,000 yards.
"Obviously, Mark and C.J. have done an outstanding job," Fecko commented. "Their stats and their performances show that and I think what goes along with that are all the people that are helping them."
Three Cardinals split time at fullback as well.
Christian Lowery, Anthony Dermotta and Brandon Berry rotate in front of Handel and Amill.
"They do a lot of things well," Saccoccia said of the Cardinals. "They want to get their athletes on your athletes and they feel their athletes are better. They try to get them in open space. They try to outnumber you; then if you adjust to their numbers, they go back away from the numbers.
"Mooney is very well-coached and well-disciplined. Their kids play tough and they have good football players."
The Cardinals average 26 points per game while allowing 20. Big Red, on the other hand, scores 27 and surrenders 23.
"They're a really good football team and they've been battled-tested lately and have really been playing consistent on both sides of the ball," Fecko said about the Big Red. "They're a solid program year in and year and although there are a lot of similarities from year to year because of the consistency with their coaching staff, there's always slight variations based on their talent.
"They do a good job varying what they do based on the talent they have, whether it's a stronger quarterback that year or stronger running back or receivers or whatever it might be. They're competitors and when the whistle blows, they're so focused and intense."
Sophomore Johnnie Blue, who ran for 178 yards and a score in the regional title game, leads the Big Red rushing attack. He has 728 stripes and nine touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Mandela Lawrence-Burke has run for 494 and thrown for 944. He has 10 scoring tosses.
Junior Lucas Herrington has 31 catches to pace Big Red. Senior Bryan Pierro is next with 27.
When discussing Friday's semifinal match, Fecko stressed "not taking advantage of situations when you have the opportunity will come back to bite you in this game."
"If you have the opportunity to score, you better score," he said. "If you have the chance to get their offense off the field with a three and out, you better do that or it will come back to haunt you."
The "great challenge" facing his team is one Saccoccia believes the Big Red can handle.
"We are going to be up to the challenge," he noted. "On Friday night, you never know what's going to happen."
NOTES: This is the eighth meeting between the schools (Mooney leads the series 6-1). .All eight meetings have come in the playoffs, the first was in 1981. . Friday's game will mark the fifth time the schools have played at Fawcett Stadium. . Big Red and Mooney have two common opponents (Cleveland Benedictine and Ursuline). Both defeated Benedictine while Ursuline lost to Mooney but beat Big Red. . Big Red last made the semifinals in 2009, bowing to Mooney 45-7. . The Cardinals then went on to whip Columbus DeSales 35-7 to claim the Division III state title with a perfect 15-0 mark. . Big Red and Mooney are both in the playoffs for the 26th time. . Mooney has 59 post-season victories and eight state titles. . Big Red now has 50 wins to go along with its three Ohio championships. . Mooney is in the semifinals for the 17th time while Big Red is making its 14th appearance (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009 and now 2013). . Big Red and Delphos St. John's are the only eight seeds to have reached the state semifinals. St. John's competes in Division VII.