Blue Devils looking to stay alive in playoffs
ST. MARYS, W.Va. –There will be plenty on the line when No. 5 St. Marys (9-1) and No. 4 Tug Valley (10-1) get together for a quarterfinal playoff matchup at Tug Valley High School in Naugatuck.
Two more wins are the only obstacles remaining for a Blue Devils football team looking to return to Wheeling Island Stadium to compete for a state championship for the third time in four seasons.
Tug Valley making an appearance in the postseason for a fourth straight year, on the other hand, comes in sitting painfully close to the first appearance in the state title game during the 30-year history of the school.
Game time is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday night with the winner either traveling to top-ranked East Hardy or hosting No. 9 Sherman next weekend.
“Our kids are well aware of what type of program Coach Mote has there,” said Tug Valley Head Coach Tony Clusky when asked if he was playing up the fact his Panthers host the reigning state champions. “It is top notch. They are well coached and solid all the way across the board. We really haven’t played it up. If you can’t get ready to play now I don’t know what it would take.”
Bottling up St. Marys’ skill position players is one area of emphasis Clusky has stressed to his team.
Running backs Jaiden Smith and Matt Eichhorn along with fullback/wideout Dylan Gray were on display last week in the Blue Devils’ 44-14 win over Doddridge County. All possess big-play capability Clusky hopes his team doesn’t have to experience first hand Friday night.
“You have to defend them from side to side and try to keep things in front of you,” said Clusky.
Panther leading tacklers linebackers Parker Brewer (91 stops) and Noah Lucas (82), along with defensive end Carson May (74) must take charge to shut down a team scoring on runs of 55 and 36 yards as well as a 40-yard pass last week.
But it isn’t just on the offensive side of the ball the SM trio excel.
Defensively those three players made their presence felt as well. Smith recovered a fumble, Eichhorn picked off a pass and Gray was in the backfield often to shut down the Bulldogs’ balanced offensive attack.
Gray is among the leading tacklers for St. Marys with 61. He is joined by Zac Long (65 takedowns), Elijah Hearn (61) and Jeremy Smith (74) who also provide strong stopping power for SMHS defensive coordinator Jay Powell’s defensive unit.
Every one of those defenders need to be ready to play Friday night as the Panthers bring a whole host of problems along the offensive line and at running back.
“They are huge,” said St. Marys Head Coach Jodi Mote. “There is no other way to put it. Their front line on both sides of the ball are gigantic.”
The main beneficiary running back Johnathan Blankenship looks to continue an impressive season where he has already piled up 1,494 yards on 147 attempts with 17 touchdowns. Mote was impressed with the speed out of the backfield. He is also the teams leading receiver with 549 yards on 25 receptions with six touchdowns.
“John has been our motor all year,” said Clusky. “He can go the distance anytime he touches the ball and has done it for us all year long. He has had some help from several other kids. Chris Ellis stepped up last week and ran the ball really well until he got hurt and missed the second half. Noah Lucas is in the backfield and so is Chandler Pack. The guys are big strong kids that are going to run hard. Our quarterback Nathan Muscar has gotten better and better and he can do some things both running and passing the ball.”
“If we don’t play we are packing up,” said Mote. “You have good on good and it should be a good ball game. It will come down to mistakes, penalties and turnovers along with taking advantage of opportunities. The ball has to bounce our way some but at the same time you have to take car of what you can control and stick the ball in the end zone.”
“To sum it up we have to take care of the football, move the chains and try to keep the football as long as we can because once we turn it over and have to go on defense St. Marys is very explosie and can score from anywhere on the field,” said Clusky on what his team must do to win the game. “If we can move the chains and win the time of possession battle it would have to help too.”