Both the Springfield and Crestview football teams have reached a pivotal moment in their respective seasons. The Tigers and Rebels will clash Friday at Crestview High School in a game with major Inter-Tri County League upper tier and state playoff implications.
Springfield comes in at 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the ITCL upper tier and sixth in Division VI, Region 19. The Tigers are tied atop the upper tier with South Range and are trying to stay on course for their matchup with the Raiders in two weeks, while also maintaining their current playoff position.
"It's a big week no doubt about it," Springfield coach Sean Guerriero said. "What we're trying to do though is make the week feel as normal as possible. We are preparing like it's just a normal game and trying not to do anything outside the ordinary."
Crestview (5-1, 2-1) must win to stay in the running for at least a share of its sixth straight conference crown. The Rebels are currently fourth in Division V, Region 15, holding a narrow lead over Liberty, whom they beat 34-26 earlier this year.
"We've been getting better," Crestview coach Paul Cusick said. "We had lots of inexperience of defense to start the year, but guys have been working hard to improve and do the right things in practice."
After getting gouged by South Range running back Joe Alessi in their 49-35 loss to the Raiders two weeks ago, the Rebel defense will be put to the test by Springfield running back Ryan Kohler. The junior ran for 247 yards against United two weeks ago, backing it up with 134 yards versus East Palestine last week.
"Kohler is very athletic and is a very good cut-back runner," Cusick said. "A play might be called to be run over the left side, but he could end up on the other end of the field. He is very good at creating opportunities if the initial play isn't there. Our defense will have to play sharp, assignment-based football."
Kohler has had to lead the way on offense for the last two games with starting quarterback Hunter Snyder-who normally shares the rushing load-out with an injury. So far on the season he has totaled 688 yards on the ground to go with seven touchdowns. He is averaging nearly 8 yards per attempt.
"Ryan has done a great job stepping up," Guerriero said. "It hasn't only been him though, Chris Wells has done a great job at fullback and the entire line has done very well."
Snyder returned to practice on Wednesday, but according to Guerriero will be very limited on Friday and will not be in the lineup. That means sophomore Graham Mincher will get his third consecutive start. In his two prior outings, Mincher has proved himself a capable replacement, completing 21-of-26 passes for 228 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
"Graham has done a terrific job," Guerriero said. "He brings a little more of a throwing element to the offense, whereas Hunter is more of a runner. We are hoping to get him some one-on-one matchups down the field if defenses starting crowding the line of scrimmage to stop Ryan."
Cusick says the Rebels defense will be ready for either quarterback.
"We are preparing as if both are going to play," Cusick said. "They have both done a good job this season and both present challenges."
The Tigers were among the trail of ITCL teams left in Crestview's wake last season, losing 58-7. For both teams, the result is ancient history.
"You can really tell how much better they are," Crestview said. "Their core players have a lot more game experience and they are playing a lot faster and more assertive."
"We fell we are playing better football this time around," Guerriero said. "Crestview is a good team, but we have to make it about us. We have to focus on our assignments and do the things we do well. If we do that, we'll have a good chance."
South Range at Columbiana
With two straight wins after an 0-4 start, the Clippers are beginning to find their way, now comes the major test. Undefeated South Range (6-0, 3-0 ITCL) rolls into Firestone Stadium fresh off of hanging 62 points on United. Behind a blistering ground attack, the Raiders are averaging 56 points in their three ITCL upper tier games.
"We had a good core of players returning on offense, so I thought we would be productive," South Range coach Dan Yeagley said. "Guys have continued to improve as the season has gone on and you see the result."
Leading the way has been junior running back Joe Alessi, who ran for a school-record 343 yards on 12 carries last week against the Eagles, breaking the mark of 289 yards set by Ben Johnston against McDonald in 2004. Alessi's six touchdowns topped his previous high of five set three weeks ago against Crestview.
Columbiana coach Bob Spaite has seen his defense improve, but knows it is in for a steep challenge.
"South Range runs the ball as well as anybody I've seen," Spaite said. " It's no secret what they do, but they execute so well you can know exactly what's coming and still not stop it. Alessi is very explosive. Our guys need to hit him right away at the line of scrimmage or he could be gone."
Columbiana has gotten two consecutive strong games from its backfield tandem of freshman quarterback Mitch Davidson and senior running back John Cramer. Over the past two weeks, Davidson has passed for 324 yards, rushed for 268 more and accounted for four total touchdowns, while Cramer has churned out 273 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
"Davidson's athletiscm is scary," Yeagley said. "They've incorporated some option things into their offense that we haven't seen from them before. He does a good job running it. They also have some other athletes like Dalton Miller and John Cramer that can hurt us."
With four weeks to go in the regular season, the Raiders are second in Division VI Region 19, sandwiched between Mogadore in first and Kirtland in third.
"We've got to continue to take it one week at a time," Yeagley said. "Columbiana is a team that is gaining steam in the second half. Bob Spaite always has a good gameplan ready for us and we know they will play hard."