Fresh off their first-ever playoff appearance, the Piketon Redstreaks came into last season’s opener with Waverly riding high. But with a new coach and three years worth of rivalry-game losses stewing in their subconscious, the Tigers had other ideas.
The 14-7 road loss set the tone for a difficult 2013 season for Piketon, one that saw the Redstreaks finish with a losing record. Though one game rarely makes or breaks a season, Piketon head coach Tyler Gullion acknowledges that a loss to a county rival can often be a tough pill to swallow.
“Some people try to downplay it, but it’s a big rivalry and that’s how I’ve always treated it,” he said. “It means a lot to both sides…it’s tough when you lose.”
The 2014 edition of the Pike County Rivalry should hold even more weight, considering how much both teams have improved in the offseason. Both Waverly and Piketon return a number of experienced starters from last season’s squads, and both teams figure to be dark-horse contenders for their respective conference championships.
“This one does have a little more meaning because it’s a county rivalry,” Waverly head coach Chris Crabtree said. “There are a lot of bragging rights. You’ve got that for a year.”
The majority of Waverly’s experience comes in the backfield, where quarterback RJ Perkins, fullback Devon Rigsby and tailback Brian Cydrus all return as starters from a season ago. Playing behind a big offensive line, including four-year starter Connor Smith (6-foot-6-inches, 310 pounds), the Tigers hope to develop a dynamic run game to set up their offense.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to get Rigsby established with the power game and then get Cydrus going with the quick stuff,” Crabtree said. “That will set up our play action pass, and obviously our quick-game 3-step drops.”
Running the ball against the Redstreaks could be a tall task, as they return every starter from their front seven a year ago. Linebacker Matt Smith will look to improve on his stellar 2013 season, where he recorded nearly 100 tackles as the focal point in Piketon’s 4-3 defense.
Gullion knows that fundamentals will be key in Friday’s game, especially in an early-season matchup against the Tigers’ potent rushing offense.
“It may sound too simple, but…you have to tackle,” he said. “You can go through all of these Xs and Os, but you have to tackle the ball carrier.”
On the other side of the ball, the Redstreaks will take a different approach. Last year, quarterback Devon Brewster threw the ball a lot in Piketon’s spread offense. A lot. He was among the SVC leaders in passing attempts, throwing the ball nearly 200 times in 2013.
But Waverly’s quick and ahtletic secondary could pose problems for the Redstreak receivers Aaron Southworth and Stefan Thacker. The Tigers return a good amount of speed in the defensive backfield, including Perkins and Tim Wells. With the dangerous amount of athleticism in the Waverly defense, Gullion knows that balanced play calling will be key to productive night offensively.
“When we get impatient, even me as a playcaller, that’s when we get in trouble,” he said. “(We) just stick with the game plan and take what they give us, whether that’s run or pass, short or long, and go from there.”
The Redstreaks will lean heavily senior running back Ethan Fremdner to keep offensive balance in the rushing game.
Both coaches also stressed the importance of playing a clean, mistake-free game. Gullion and Crabtree both hope their team will be the one the fewer turnovers and penalties.
“Offensively, we can’t make mistakes. We can’t have penalties and we can’t turn the ball over,” Crabtree said. “If we can execute our plays and everyone can do their jobs, we should be in good shape.”
“Whoever wins (the turnover battle) is going to be at an advantage, and it’s going to be a predictor,” Gullion said.
As is every rivalry game, emotions will be running high Friday night in Piketon. Gullion hopes his team can control its emotions.
“You can’t get too excited that you can’t play, but it’s a big game and it’s good to see where you’re at early,” he said.
As for the Tigers, they hope a second-straight win over the Redstreaks can springboard them to a playoff appearance at season’s end.
“If you can go out and set the tone, it should give you a little bit of confidence,” Crabtree said. “We defintely want to come out and get that first victory and give us some confidence in week two.”
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter