ST. MARYS, W.Va. - The playoff vibe arrived early as Magnolia has been fighting for its postseason life since the midway point of the regular season.
The path doesn't get any easier as the 4-3 Blue Eagles renew a storied rivalry with St. Marys tonight. Magnolia leads the series 49-18, but the two programs haven't met on the football field since Blue Eagle coach Mark Batton earned his first coaching victory in 1999.
"It's an electrifying atmosphere at St. Marys," Batton said. "There's a reason they are ranked No. 1 in Class A. They have a good football program and I have a great deal of respect for coach Jodi Mote."
The last time they met occurred in 2000. A classification change put the rivalry on ice until this year.
"I played against them as a player and there were some great games between the two schools," Mote said. "When coach Dave Cisar was there it was neat to have that kind of relationship with his kids coming through and my dad coaching here.
"Magnolia always was a tough game. They've always been known for their athletic kids, and being able to throw and run the football. They play sound defense."
St. Marys enters the contest undefeated at 6-0. A 32-13 win against Williamstown two weeks ago resembled the type of atmosphere the Blue Eagles are in for at homecoming and Imlay Field. When the Yellowjackets arrived, there were three television stations on hand.
"That was a great experience for us," Mote said. "This is going to be the same type of game. Magnolia's record is so deceiving - in my mind they are top 5 team. It will be a tremendous challenge, so we have to bring our best ballgame."
Mote clearly states that Magnolia is much better than its No. 17 ranking indicates. On opening night, the Blue Eagles lost to Linsly by a touchdown. The following week, they led Williamstown 14-10 with less than two minutes remaining in the game before suffering a 15-14 setback.
Three weeks ago on the Island, Magnolia had Wheeling Central trailing 20-15 with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter before the Maroon Knights answered with two late touchdowns.
"This is the best team we have faced so far," Mote said. "Defensively, they just get a hat to the ball. They are relentless. They're always moving, and on offense (assistant coach Dave Chapman) formations you to death.
"Running backs Drew Keller and Kage Rohde are interchangeable. Then they have Kyle Ritz at tight end. Their quarterback Jacob Brill is getter better with every game, and receiver Eric Smith has taken the place of Stephen Rogalski."
For St. Marys, Jeremy Pratt has rushed for a team-high 474 yards on 54 carries. Also producing in the Blue Eagles' ground game are Noah Spitzer (82-384) and David Gray (59-363). Quarterback Michael Stout has completed 15-of-40 passes for 588 yards and six touchdowns.
According to Batton, the unsung heroes are the members along the St. Marys offensive line.
"We haven't faced an offensive or defensive front like St. Marys," he said. "They are big, strong and athletic. We scrimmaged them last year and we checked on that film - you could tell those kids were committed to the offseason program.
"They have gotten bigger, stronger and faster. They are strong mobile kids."
The seniors on the Magnolia roster have received a taste of what awaits them on Friday. Three years ago, they received their championship rings as the Blue Eagles won the Class AA state title. Last season, Magnolia advanced to the semifinals before falling to eventual state champ Wahama.
"We're getting ready for the No. 1 team in the state, and that's the atmosphere you want to play in," Batton said. "As a coaching staff, we can't wait to see how we respond. A game like this brings out a lot of character."