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Saturday afternoon battle

Crusaders, Blue Dons must win for playoff implications

WEIRTON — Madonna is going against a couple of the toughest teams on the 2019 schedule, and they come at a time when it is hoping to make a run at the playoffs, so it will be going from the frying pan into the fire this week at Jimmy Carey Stadium.

The game time for this key Week 9 match-up with cross-river rival Catholic Central has been changed to noon Saturday because Weir High has its homecoming dance that night, and there were concerns about accommodating both crowds at the same time.

The first game of that tough part of the Madonna schedule was last week with the Blue Dons taking it on the chin at Toronto to the tune of 55-14. That dropped the Madonna record to 6-2, but only affected its playoff rank slightly, dropping from eighth to ninth. It needs to win out the next two weeks to grab one of the top eight spots that gets home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

“We got a couple of bonus points out of teams that we have beaten and some other teams had the same fate we did,” said Madonna head coach Darrin Hicks about maintaining a good position in the rankings. “We’re still in a position to control our own destiny.”

That means his Blue Dons have to be focused on beating the Crusaders, who invade with a 4-4 record and also are eyeing a playoff spot.

“We didn’t have to tell them about the importance of the final two games,” first-year Central coach Anthony Agresta said. “They already have figured it out. Everyone knows what is potentially at stake. There’s not really a whole lot of need to talk about it. We just have to take care of the business in front of us.”

Hicks has been saying similar words to his Blue Dons.

“They (Crusaders) are a good team, and I told our guys that right now we are pretty much in playoff mode,” he said. “We need to prepare and do everything like it is playoff time with our backs against the wall. So, that’s kind of where we’re at.

“Central has a 4-4 record, so we would get a lot of bonus points by beating them Saturday and hopefully get more bonus points from teams we’ve beaten already. It is a critical time when it comes to points and playoff position.”

The Crusaders go into the game fresh off of a 37-7 win over Morgantown Trinity Christian to keep their playoff hopes alive in the Division VII, Region 25 race. But, three of their four losses have come in road games (0-3 on the road). Agresta said after the win over Trinity, it gives the Crusaders an opportunity to think about the postseason. He said he told his team that if they can’t win a game on the road, then they don’t deserve to get into the playoffs.

This is the 20th all-time meeting between the schools separated by about 10 miles. Central leads the series, 12-6-1. The teams met for the first time in 1964 and played each other for a while, then resumed the series on an annual basis in 2009.

The Crusaders are ranked 13th in Region 25, with the top eight schools making the playoffs. Central closes the season with a home game against Toronto next week. The Red Knights have pretty much clinched a playoff spot in Region 25.

“Central is very talented,” Hicks said. “Their quarterback (junior Ryan Gorman) was injured playing against Harrison Central two weeks ago, but they moved a wide receiver (senior Anthony LeFever) to quarterback. He is tremendously talented. He directed them in the win last week, and I think he had over 100 yards rushing (110 total) on only three carries. He’s a guy we have to pay some special attention to.

“They have a talented running back (senior Jeffrey Dawson). I think the first three times he touched the football against Trinity he ran for touchdowns. They use him in wildcat situations, as well. They’re doing what they need to do with changes in their offense to make up for the loss of their starting quarterback.”

Dawson is fourth in rushing among area running backs with 751 yards on 132 carries and 13 touchdowns. Roman Baird is sixth in the area with 143 totes for 606 yards and four touchdowns.

Agresta said one of his main concerns with Madonna is the passing game.

“They like to throw the ball, and they are effective making big plays down the field, especially with No. 1 (6-foot-3 senior Brennan Secrist),” he said. “So, we have to be prepared to defend the pass. They also have a solid running back (Baird) that you cannot ignore, so we are preparing hard for them.

“They will throw some jump balls up there for No. 1 whether he is covered or not and let him make plays. That’s not really a bad offensive philosophy. We know its coming. The question is will we make the plays when it happens?”

Santino Arlia continues as the top gunslinger in the area, completing 139 of 152 passes for 1,570 yards and 18 touchdowns. Secrist is his favorite target, and he leads all area receivers with 42 catches for 500 yards and nine touchdowns. The Blue Dons also have junior wide receiver Thomas Sessi, who is third in receiving in the area with 30 catches for 317 yards.

Agresta said Madonna doesn’t play a traditional defensive front.

“They will walk a lot of guys up to the line of scrimmage,” he said. “So, we will have to be prepared to scheme things correctly and recognize what we are looking at. That’s the biggest thing we will have to pay attention to.”

Hicks said the Crusaders, like Toronto last week, play a physical brand of football.

“The Central defense has a lot of speed,” he said. “Their linebackers, I think, are tremendous. They have downhill running type of players, and they do a nice job in the secondary with some athletic players. Their front people seem to move around pretty well. They understand their scheme and do a pretty nice job.

“One of the biggest things they’re doing is special teams. They have a punt formation they do that is quite interesting. They make big plays on special teams. They started the game last week against Morgantown Trinity with a 99-yard kickoff return. They pose a ton of problems for us.”

Agresta added that one of his keys for Saturday is to prevent the big plays on defense.

“Any time you are facing a team that likes to throw the ball and gives itself a lot of chances to make plays down the field, you want to keep the ball in the hands of your offense as long as possible,” he said. “You want to limit the opportunities they have to make plays.

“I’m looking forward to this rivalry game. Any time there are rivalries, there’s a lot of history and a lot of build up during the week. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

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