It won’t take long for Wheelersburg and Ironton to renew an old rivalry as the Pirates are preparing to host the Fighting Tigers Friday night.
Both storied programs have been synonymous with winning, and this type of rivalry (especially to begin a season), reinvigorates football purists’ passion for Friday night football. At least Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward thinks so.
However, Woodward also knows the importance of this type of opening game, and the lasting ramifications the losing squad can face for the remainder of the season.
“It kicks off the football season in a special way,” Woodward said. “With a storied program like Ironton, all of the work you put in over the summer, it’s kind of fitting to have it been a game like this that you start off with. It sets the tone for the passion you have for the game, for the love that you have for the game. But you have to understand that these are two good football teams and someone is going to come out on the losing end.
“Our kids understand the goal is to come out and play the best, sound football game we can and let the chips fall where they may. We can’t allow it to control us for the rest of the year. We just have to come out and play our hearts out, and represent Wheelersburg well.”
As far as the game itself, Woodward is expecting a traditional Fighting Tigers squad to show up Friday night: A team that features a dual-threat quarterback, dangerous halfbacks, strong fullbacks and a big, physical offensive line.
The 2014 version of Ironton appears to have all of those assets at its disposal. Senior quarterback Tristan Cox brings leadership and intangibles to the Fighting Tigers’ offense. During Ironton’s media day, coach Mark Vass touted Cox’s growth as a leader as one of the biggest improvements during the offseason.
Lining up behind Cox will be standout running backs D’Angelo Palladino, who transferred from South Point and routinely eclipsed the 100-yard mark during the latter parts of the 2013 season, and senior Tanner Price.
Leading the way for Cox, Palladino and Price will be fullbacks Desmond Young and Jeremy Bodmer. Young is a 6-foot-1-inch, 214-pound junior while senior Bodmer is listed at 6-foot-2, 180-pounds.
Anchoring a big offensive line for Ironton is 6-foot-4-inch, 290-pound senior Issac Sherman and 6-foot-5-inch, 270-pound sophomore Tyler Webb.
Woodward knows it’ll be a difficult to matchup with the Fighting Tigers’ size.
“They’ve got all those components and all of those pieces,” Woodward said. “They get that machine rolling, that smash-mouth football that they’ve always been accustomed to playing, and we’ve got to have our kids ready for that week one.”
The challenge increases significantly having to play against a physical team during the opening week of a new season.
“That’s what we talk about week one,” Woodward said. “It’s not like you’re playing a finesse team that may try to run the football, they will run the football on you and we have to make sure our kids understand that and are ready for that.”
The Pirates are going to attempt to remain balanced on defense. If Wheelersburg is forced to sell out against the run, Woodward’s squad could find themselves in trouble.
“We feel if we can get them to break out of that typically “T” they love to be in, then something’s going well for us but they’ve got very good athletes that can do well in a lot of different formations,” Woodward said. “We’ve got to stay balanced and be ready for all points of attack.”
Offensively, Wheelersburg will be breaking in a new signal caller. Austin May will be taking the snaps after Eddie Miller III, who rewrote the record books during his tenure at the school.
Despite the quarterback change, the Pirates offense is still predicated on being unpredictable and balanced. They might run the ball more this season to fit May’s strengths but Woodward isn’t going to abandon an offensive philosophy that has brought a lot of success to the orange and black during recent seasons.
“We feel we are always going to be one of the most conditioned teams,” Woodward said. “We work to maintain that conditioning component, that toughness and that unpredictability. We could go at anytime to a hurry-up style offense or we could slow the tempo down, and control the huddle. We like to be able to dictate that and feel our way through the game, and use what we feel is working best for us.”
The key to this game is simple as far as Woodward is concerned — limit the mistakes.
“If we limited our mistakes, we feel we can come out on the good side,” he said.
Chris Slone can be reached at 353-3101, ext 1930, or on Twitter @crslone.