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Big Red begins another postseason push in unfamiliar territory

ROAD WARRIORS — The Steubenville football team travels to face unbeaten Aurora on Friday. -Joe Catullo

AURORA — Big Red and Aurora will be looking to play their best in Friday’s Division III, Region 9 quarterfinal showdown.

The kick for the second meeting between the traditionally strong programs is set for 7 p.m. inside Veterans Stadium.

“For us, the key is we need to play the best game we’ve played all year,” said Reno Saccoccia, coach of the fifth-seeded Big Red. “Anything short of that and we are going to have a tough time. If we play our best game, then we will have a shot. But, it’s going to take our best game.”

In an interview with Frank Aceto of the Record-Courier, Bob Mihalik, who’s in his 19th season at the Aurora helm, said, “Steubenville is very talented. If we don’t play our best, we can get beat.”

Mihalik and his Greenmen, the fourth seed in the region, earned their first home playoff game since 2016 by going unbeaten in the regular season. In 2018, the Greenmen went 7-3 but missed the postseason, thus ending a run of 13-straight trips.

Aurora’s 10 victories came against the likes of Brush, Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, Twinsburg, Parma Padua, Tallmadge, Kent Roosevelt, Barberton, Medina Highland, Revere and Copley. The offense averaged 33 points in those wins, while the defense has allowed just 47 points and recorded four shutouts. Padua is the only team to reach double digits against the Greenmen.

“That’s phenomenal — I’ve never heard of anything like that,” Saccoccia said. “Forty-seven points with a Division III schedule, it’s unheard of. Aurora’s defense is outstanding.”

The Aurora defense is led by senior middle linebacker A.J. Barner (6-foot-5, 225 pounds). He has committed to play at Ohio University. Barner has recorded a team-high 77 tackles, two sacks and nine tackles for loss. In addition, he has recovered three fumbles.

Outside linebacker James Austin, a 6-0, 185-pound senior, leads the Greenmen with seven sacks. Senior defensive end Lenny Galaska (6-2, 195) has recorded more than 50 tackles. He also has more than 10 tackles for loss.

Aurora’s offensive attack is directed by quarterback Alex Moore (6-2, 210). Just a sophomore, Moore has passed for 1,355 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’s completed 94 of his 142 attempts and been intercepted just three times.

Johnny Papesh, a 5-9, 150-pound senior slot back, leads the team in receptions with 34. He has 661 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. He also has a team-high four interceptions as a safety.

Senior Anthony Gramm (6-1, 170) paces the ground game with 711 yards and eight scores on 137 trips. Junior Evan McVay (5-8, 165) has compiled 356 yards and six touchdowns. He’s carried the football 72 times. McVay also has 25 catches for 314 yards and two scores.

“Aurora is just a really good football team,” Saccoccia said. “The quarterback and running back both are outstanding. They also have talent upfront. They are well coached and physical.

“They might be a running team, but when they want to pass, they pass. They don’t pass when they have to pass. Instead, they pass when they want to pass. We’re in for a major test on both sides of the football.”

Players up front for Aurora, which is 10-0 for the first time since 1998, are senior Alex Hawk (6-1, 205), senior Patrick Murray (6-4, 225), senior Adam Hicks (6-3, 265), junior Michael Sedar (6-4, 235) and senior Tucker Nietert (6-1, 275).

Big Red, which went 6-3 during the regular season, is making its 19th-straight trip to the postseason. On its way to a 2006 Division III championship, Steubenville earned a 48-13 semifinal victory over Aurora.

“You’re talking about a program that’s one of the most storied programs in Ohio,” said Mihalik, who has compiled a 164-56 record in his years at Aurora. “It’s a tough first-round matchup.”

Offensively, Big Red averages 448 yards and 38 points a game. The defense surrenders 299 yards (only 64 on the ground) and 27 points.

“They’re a run-first team with a dual-threat quarterback,” Mihalik said. “They’re physical. They do things that are more old school. They get under center and pound the football. It’s going to be a challenge for our defense.

“They attack differently than anyone we’ve seen this season. They use a lot of two and three tight-end sets. Lots of teams don’t even use the tight end anymore.”

Senior tailback Tayveon Crawford is Big Red’s offensive leader. In just nine games, he has rushed for 1,902 yards on 281 carries for 27 touchdowns. He averages 6.8 yards a tote. Crawford also has eight receptions for 71 yards and a score. Randy Mitchell is Big Red’s dual-threat quarterback. He has completed 87 of his 134 passes for 1,045 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also has 286 rushing yards, averaging 9 yards a carry. Also a three-year starter at corner, Mitchell has 29 tackles and three sacks.

His favorite target is Stone Biacco, who has 31 receptions for 490 yards and four scores.

Leaders on the defensive side of the ball for Big Red are senior linebacker David Tuttle with 97 tackles and three interceptions and senior defensive end Niko Kausky (65 tackles, six sacks and two fumble recoveries).

“Aurora has solid leaders on both sides of the football,” Saccoccia said. “A couple of their players are really good wrestlers and that’s a good combination to have.

“They’re an unbeaten team — a playoff team. They are the best team we have played so far this year, and we need to come through with our best performance.”

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