Big Red’s quest underway
STEUBENVILLE — Big Red’s quest for a fourth state playoff championship begins Friday when Salem visits Harding Stadium for a Region 13 quarterfinal contest. The kick, as mandated by the OHSAA, is set for 7:30 p.m.
Earlier this week, Big Red, which became the 21st team in program history to record an unbeaten regular season, earned its seventh Ohio AP poll championship. Steubenville finished with 201 points and 17 first place votes in the Division IV rankings. Germantown Valley View was second.
Steubenville, which suffered heartbreaking losses in the last two Division IV state title games, enters the playoffs as the top seed in Region 13. Salem (7-3) earned the eighth spot thanks to a 48-8 victory over rival West Branch on Friday.
Either Big Red or Salem will get the survivor of the Cardinal Mooney-Poland Seminary matchup in the regional semifinals. Also on Friday, second-seeded Perry will host No. 7 Struthers, and No. 6 Girard visits third-seeded Cortland Lakeview.
Perry’s unbeaten Pirates finished third in the AP poll, while Girard (9-1) was ninth.
“I think Region 13 is very competitive, probably the most competitive in the division from top to bottom,” Big Red coach Reno Saccoccia said. “Of course, anytime you are involved in something you feel the people you are going against are the best.
“I’m sure everyone has the same opinion about the regions they are competing in. This region does have three previous state champions (Big Red, Mooney and Poland) in the final eight.”
Friday’s meeting will be the fourth all-time between Big Red and Salem. The first game was back in 1912, and the last was a regional semifinal bout in 2015 with Steubenville rolling to a 46-7 victory. Big Red has a 2-1 lead in the series.
“From watching them on film, they remind me of their coach (Ron Johnson),” Saccoccia said when discussing the Quakers. “They have a real passion for the game of football. They are well-coached and have some very good athletes. I’m tell you one thing — I’ve never seen anyone handle West Branch like they did. I know we never did.”
Salem’s offense, which averages 30 points per game, is directed by quarterback Mitch Davidson, a 6-4, 195-pound senior. He has thrown for 2,339 yards and 30 touchdowns. His passing total probably would be even higher if not for a midseason bout with injuries.
His favorite target is a fellow senior Chase Ackerman. The 6-5, 191-pound wide receiver has 60 catches for 995 yards. Junior Turner Johnson (5-11, 155) has 39 catches for 479 yards. Luke Weingart and Zach Bezon are also pass-catching threats for Salem.
When the Quakers run the football, sophomore Cade Campolito (6-0, 175) and senior Eli Rothwell (5-9, 170) generally get the call.
Despite Davidson’s impressive numbers, Saccoccia pointed out Salem is not a one-dimensional team.
“They do what they have to do to win a game,” he said. “They’ve won some games passing, and they’ve won some games running. The offensive line is very solid. They get off the ball well and have two players along the line who weigh 280, so they’re big.”
Senior Jordan Lyons (6-0, 280) and junior Matt Castles (6-0, 285) are the biggest Quakers along the offensive front. They’re joined by senior Mike Brant (6-1, 230), senior Trevor Smith (5-11, 227) and junior Jake Narvet (5-10, 215).
Salem’s defensive allows 23 points per game. Saccoccia said the Quaker defense is led by a “Henry Maxim-type linebacker.”
Johnson’s club started the season with four consecutive victories, whipping East Palestine, United, East Liverpool and Carrollton. It then lost three in a row to Canton South, Marlington and Alliance. The Quakers closed with wins over Minerva, Louisville and West Branch.
The win over Louisville was Salem’s first since 1928.
“It’s great to be back in the playoffs. It’s another week we get to hang out together, and that’s really cool,” Johnson told Salem News. “Steubenville is a great atmosphere to play in, and you have to beat them all to win it.
“We played them in the playoffs two years ago and it’s the same system, the same program, a real good program and they’re loaded, but so are we. We’re a good football team and we cherish this opportunity. Are theyreally good? Heck yeah, but we’re looking forward to playing the best football team in the state of Ohio.”
Through 10 games, Big Red’s offense is averaging 437 yards (292 on the ground) and 38 points.
Senior Jacob Bernard, despite missing several games with an injury, has rushed for 946 yards and 15 touchdowns to pace Steubenville. Sophomore Tayveon Crawford has compiled 534 and five scores.
Javon Davis, Big Red’s senior quarterback, has thrown for 1,395 yards (he’s completing 69 percent of his passes) and 14 touchdowns. Johnny Agresta, also a senior, has a team-high 32 catches, while senior Gino Pierro has 23.
Defensively, Big Red allows just 156 yards an outing and 10 points.
Senior defensive tackle Quentin Moore had a strong regular season, recording 58 tackles (23 resulting in a loss) and eight sacks. From his linebacker spot, Agresta has 55 tackles, nine leading to a loss of yardage.
Marlon Lawrence, the other senior tackle, has 34 tackles, 14 for a loss and three sacks. Junior middle linebacker Eric Lulla has been in on 76 tackles (he had 19 TFL) and five sacks. Senior linebacker Jonathon Blackmon has 55 tackles, 11 for a loss and two sacks.
Saccoccia said his goal in practice this week was to “keep our players focused.”
“We worked on Big Red Monday and Tuesday, doing everything we have to do in order to keep getting better,” he said. “On Wednesday and Thursday, we’ll focus our effort on Salem and what they do.
“There’s no real change in our game preparation. We might do a little less hitting, but overall, there are no major changes.”
When discussing the AP poll championship, Saccoccia said “it’s not the ultimate victory, but it does let your kids know that people around Ohio respect what you are doing and respect the type of program you have.”
“I used to really appreciate the fact that the AP gave an indication of who people thought were the top programs in the state,” he said. “I changed my opinion after 2015 (Big Red led the Division IV poll by a wide margin heading into Week, 10 but somehow wound up second despite finishing the regular season 10-0).”
¯ Big Red is making its 17th consecutive trip to the postseason, the third longest active streak in playoff history.
¯ Steubenville has 30 all-time playoff appearances. Newark Catholic, which didn’t reach the postseason this year, has 35 followed by Cincinnati Moeller (34), Ironton (33), Mogadore (31) and Big Red. Like Newark Catholic, Ironton also failed to qualify this season.
¯ Big Red’s all-time playoff record currently stands at 61-26. It has been in the state finals eight times.
¯ This is Salem’s fourth trip to the postseason, and the Quakers currently have a 2-3 record.