Big Red looks to rewrite history with Youngstown Cardinal Mooney

LEADING THE CHARGE — Steubenville’s Quentin Moore (50) leads Big Red on the field to challenge Salem in a Division IV, Region 13 quarterfinal on Friday at Harding Stadium. (Photo by Joe Catullo)

SALEM — For Big Red to reach a fifth consecutive regional championship game, it must first deal with playoff nemesis Youngstown Cardinal Mooney.

The tradition-rich programs will square off in the Division IV, Region 13 semifinals Friday inside Reilly Stadium. The kick, as mandated by OHSAA, is set for 7:30 p.m.

Big Red (11-0) enters as the region’s top seed and posted a 49-14 quarterfinal victory over Salem. Mooney, the fifth seed, is 7-4 and knocked off Poland, 13-7, in the opening round.

The other Region 13 semifinal matches 11-0 Perry, the second seed, against No. 6 Girard (10-1). That game will be played in Twinsburg.

Friday’s meeting will be the ninth all-time, Mooney holding a commanding 7-1 series lead, and all occurring in the playoffs. The last came in 2013 when the Cardinals took rolled past eighth-seeded Big Red.

“This is a typical Cardinal Mooney football team,” Big Red coach Reno Saccoccia said. “They are well-coached and disciplined. They are big and strong where they should be, and they are fast and mobile where they should be.”

P.J. Fecko’s Cardinals opened the season with a victory over Cleveland Heights (21-12) before losing three straight to Akron Hoban (31-13), Columbus DeSales (28-7) and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (27-21). Mooney then downed Boardman (21-7) and Buffalo St. Joseph’s (34-6). It fell to Akron Buchtel (10-9) before closing with wins over Warren Harding (15-14), Ursuline (49-21) and Austintown-Fitch (14-7).

Big Red also faced Boardman and Ursuline, earning victories of 42-21 and 37-6.

The Mooney offense averages 22 points per outing, while its defense surrenders 17. Big Red’s offense scores 39 points per contest, while its defense allows 11.

“Offensively, they do whatever they need to do in order to win,” Saccoccia said. “Mooney can throw the football and they can run it. They do both very well. Their offensive line is very big and they utilize that line to their advantage. They have athletes outside the box and utilize them to their advantage.

“Defensively, they are solid, gap sound and they are able to pressure the quarterback with just four people. They very seldom blitz and do a very good job of defending the pass.”

In the Poland game, Mooney lost starting quarterback/linebacker Antonio Page to an injury early. Page, a 5-11, 185-pound senior, has run for more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. Before leaving the game, he recovered three fumbles.

Page appeared to get hurt on the first recovery, a Poland fumble on the opening series of the game. He went in at quarterback for the first Mooney series and rushed for eight yards before leaving. His status for Friday is unclear.

He was replaced at quarterback by John Murphy, a 6-1, 180-pound junior. Chris Gruber, a 5-8, 160-pound junior, also could see time at QB for the Cardinals if Page is unable to go.

In Page’s absence, senior tailback Andre McCoy (5-11, 210) got the bulk of the carries and responded with 120 yards. He also scored the go-ahead touchdown. McCoy is joined in the Mooney backfield by running back Jason Santisi (5-11, 180) and fullback Dan Simko (5-11, 230).

Mooney’s receiving threats include freshman Michael Pelini (5-11, 170), junior Luke Fulton (6-3, 210), sophomore Nick Billiris (6-3, 210) and junior Tom DeCesare (5-11, 175). The tight ends are seniors Cheriff Johnson (6-3, 230) and Brennon Olesh (6-1, 215).

The very big line Saccoccia mentioned is led by junior tackle Kyle Jornigan (6-5, 310). Senior Alex Maxin (6-4, 290) starts at the other tackle. Mooney’s guards are seniors Steve Moser (6-1, 270) and Tyler Petrey (5-11, 260). Senior Vinny Gentile (6-2, 240) anchors the line from his center position.

“I have a lot of respect for Mooney, its program and its coaches,” Saccoccia said. “I’ll tell you one thing; if you’re not physical against Mooney, you don’t belong in the game. You can’t be soft when you play against a football team like Mooney.”

In the 49-14 win over Salem, Big Red’s offense put 42 points on the board in the opening half, while the defense delivered its usual solid performance.

Senior tailback Jacob Bernard collected 131 rushing yards in one half of work. He now has 1,077 yards for the season and 18 touchdowns. Bernard missed the first two games of the season recovering from an injury. Sophomore Tayveon Crawford has compiled 570 rushing yards and senior Jonathon Blackmon 368.

Javon Davis, Big Red’s senior quarterback, has thrown for 1,395 yards and 14 scores. Senior Johnny Agresta leads the receivers with 32 catches for 372 yards. Gino Pierro has 23, DaJuan Jones 15 and Blackmon 14.

Saccoccia said his Big Red will have to turn it up a notch this week as it prepares for the Cardinals.

“When it comes to preparation, you have to turn it up a notch in every round of the playoffs,” he said. “If you play like you did in your last game, you’re not going to win. Each time you advance in the playoffs, you are going against a better team.”

As far as keys to victory go, Saccoccia is keeping things pretty simple.

“We have to do what we do but do it a lot better,” he said.

The veteran coach has no problems with the location selected by the OHSAA.

“Salem’s a great location,” he said. “It has a very good field and quality facilities. Plus, it will hold the crowd. I really don’t care where we play, as long as we are playing.”

From a health standpoint, Saccoccia said his troops are “as good as you can be after 11 games.”


¯ Mooney was Big Red’s first-ever playoff opponent back in 1981 and easily whipped Steubenville 49-0.

¯ Between them, the programs have 125 playoff victories. The Cardinals have 63 wins while Big Red has compiled 62.

¯ With its eight state championships, Mooney is tied with Newark Catholic for the fourth spot in all-time titles. Big Red, of course, has earned three state crowns.

¯ Big Red has been in the postseason 30 times, while Mooney has played beyond Week 10 a total of 29 times.

¯ Mooney has advanced to the state final four 17 times, while Big Red has 16 appearances in the semifinals. The Cardinals are tied for second in that department with Mogadore. Big Red and Cincinnati Moeller are tied for fourth most.

¯ Big Red fans can purchase presale tickets on Friday from 8:30 a.m. until noon at the high school. Tickets purchased in advance are $8 and the school receives a portion of the sale. Tickets at the game are $9. All seats are general admission.