Blue Dons, Red Knights have something to prove
TORONTO — The schedule makers couldn’t have scripted Friday night’s small-school marque game between visiting Madonna and Toronto at Clarke Hinkle Field.
Both teams need to win this one to keep their playoff home-field advantage goals alive. The game starts at 7 p.m.
The Blue Dons are 6-1 with a four-game winning streak and are ranked eighth in Class A in West Virginia, the highest ranking for a Madonna team since the undefeated state championship team of 2013.
The Red Knights are coming off a heart-breaking 44-7 loss last week at unbeaten Oak Glen and are in need of starting another win streak to lock up one of the top four spots in Division VII, Region 25. Currently, they are ranked fifth after holding the top spot prior to Friday.
Wins at any time in the season are important, but while neither team has its back against the wall, wins during these final three games down the stretch, somehow, seem more magnified at this time of the season.
“We’re getting toward the end of the season now, and there are implications to everything we’ll be doing from this point on,” Madonna coach Darrin Hicks said. “That’s what you play for. That’s what you want. It makes for an exciting time for everyone involved in the program and the school. It’s the same for Toronto. They have a heck of a good football team over there.”
Toronto second-year coach Josh Franke had much the same to say about Madonna.
“They are a very athletic football team,” he said. “They spread you out. They have some dynamic play-makers on the outside that you have to account for and, defensively, they try to make it difficult for you to run the ball. They box up, and they think their athletes are better than your athletes, so they match up on the outside with man coverage. They just really make it difficult for you to move the football.”
Franke, who was ejected during Friday night’s defeat after receiving a personal foul for unsportsmanlike conduct, is suspended for this week’s contest. He is not permitted to be on the sidelines, in the locker room or in the press box but is allowed to attend.
Both teams parlayed good defenses into wins during their winning streaks. Prior to the loss last week, the Red Knight defense had yielded just 31 points during a five-game win streak, while the Blue Dons have given up just 32 points in their current four-game win streak.
“The outcome of that game is not indicative of just how good Toronto is,” Hicks said of the 44-7 Oak Glen win. “They are a tremendously talented football team.”
The teams have met one common opponent in Beallsville. The Red Knights knocked off Beallsville handily, 49-0, in Week 4, with Madonna taking the Blue Devils last week, 33-20.
Neither coach takes much stock in scores of games with common opponents.
“Truly, we try not to look too much into that especially with high school kids,” Franke said. “Anything can happen on Friday night. And, I think Beallsville is a young team with a first-year football coach. I see a team like Beallsville getting better week after week.”
Madonna’s Roman Baird had season and career highs of 230 yards rushing in the game.
A resurgence in the Blue Don running game could be important because Oak Glen was able to run the ball effectively against the Red Knight defense. The Golden Bears racked up 322 rushing yards and three scores on the ground. However, that defense was able to keep Nick Chaney, previously the top-rated quarterback in the Herald-Star/Daily Times coverage area in terms of passing yardage, to less than 67 yards through the air.
With that, Madonna sophomore quarterback Santino Arlia passed for 182 yards and two touchdowns against Beallsville and now leads Chaney by 216 yards.
“Toronto is super, super multiple,” Hicks said. “I’m not sure I’ve seen an offense in the last couple years that is as multiple as they are, with almost a different formation on every down. One down they’ll be in two tight ends and wishbone formation. They’ll got to five wide receivers.
“They present a huge challenge to us in being able to line up and match a group of very talented offensive players. They’ve got skill all over the field. They’ve got a bunch of guys that are electric with the ball in their hands. They don’t seem to have a weakness offensively.”
That offense is triggered by junior Caleb Leasure, who now is ranked the fourth quarterback in the area, connecting on 52 of 84 passes for 934 yards and 12 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. He was 11 of 22 last week for 171 yards, but the Oak Glen defense picked him three times.
Madonna has the top two receivers in the area, with senior Brennan Secrist catching 37 passes for 423 yards and seven touchdowns. Junior Thomas Sessi has caught 29 for 314 yards and one score. Toronto counters on the outside with senior Zach Stackhouse, who has 16 receptions for 286 yards and five touchdowns, along with running back Garrett Dozier with 14 for 132 yards.
Dozier leads the Red Knight ball carriers with 557 yards on 112 rushes and five touchdowns. Baird leads Madonna with 584 rushing yards, 127 totes and four touchdowns.
“We’re after one of the top four spots in Region 25,” Franke said. “The kids really want that home game. It is important to them. In order for that to happen, we need to definitely win the rest of our remaining games to try and secure one of those top four seeds. That has been a goal for these kids since the beginning of the year.”
Hicks said the playoffs aren’t something that they talk about all the time.
“Our primary goal each week is to just be 1-0 one more time,” he said. “That primarily is what we talk about all the time. We don’t focus on what has happened in the past, we don’t really focus on the future. Our entire focus this week is on a very good Toronto football team.
“We try not to look at those what-if situations. That’s (the playoffs) obviously what everybody wants, to be in that position. But, to continually be in that position you have to take care of the one thing that’s in front of you, and this week it happens to be a very big challenge for us.
“Toronto has a great fan base. I imagine the crowd will be electric. They’ve got great kids and great coaching staff and school. The proximity of the two schools to each other will add into that. There will be a ton of excitement. I think our fans will be out as we also have great support from our community, school and administration. This is what a high school football game on a Friday night in the Ohio Valley is all about. So, it should be an exciting night for both towns.”