Bulldogs will be unleashed in new league

EAST PALESTINE — Despite taking it on the chin a little bit with their non-conference schedule, the East Palestine football team enters the first week of the Eastern Ohio Athletic Conference with all of its goals still very much on the table.

With an abundance of returning skill position players, The Bulldogs are widely considered to be one of the top contenders when the new league kicks off its football schedule tonight.

“Since they established the league, we’ve talked about wanting to win it the first year,” East Palestine junior running back/defensive end Dominic Posey said. “Now that it’s here, we’re all excited to see what we can do and see how it all plays out.”

The Bulldogs (1-2) will be diving right into the conference slate with one of their most pivotal games of the season when they welcome 2-1 United–one of the other main EOAC contenders–to Reid Stadium.

“I’m excited, I think everyone is,” junior quarterback Parker Sherry said. “I’m going to miss playing some our old ITCL opponents, but I think the new league is going to be fun. We’re all ready to tackle the challenge.”

“We all feel like we have a good chance of winning the league this year, so it should be fun to get it started,” senior receiver/defensive end Branden Kemp said. “We all want to start it off on a good note.”

The Bulldogs opened the season with tests against Salem and Perry, both of whom are unbeaten Division IV schools with the latter coming off a 2016 run to the state semifinals. They stumbled to an 0-2 start after losing a down-to-the-wire 34-28 game to Salem and getting crushed 65-12 by Perry, which entered this week ranked second in the Division IV state poll. Things brightened last week when the Bulldogs rebounded to roll past Campbell 53-26.

“Our non-conference schedule is what it is,” East Palestine coach Tony Foster said. “We gave Salem a very good game that came right down to the end. The biggest thing to come out of the Perry game was that we got through it healthy, they’re a very good team. Obviously I’d rather not be sitting here with two losses, but I feel that we’ve got the ship headed in the right direction after last week.”

The main source of optimism coming into the year for the Bulldogs was the amount of returning playmakers on offense led by the dual-threat Sherry, who came into the season with over 5,000 yards of total offense the last two seasons. Through three games, he has piled up 717 passing yards and 272 rushing yards.

Last week against Campbell, Sherry carved up the Red Devils for 252 passing yards, 135 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

“We knew the first two games were going to be tough coming into the year, but it was still hard to lose both of them knowing how hard we worked,” Sherry said. “I think it can help us get better though. Salem’s passing game should help our secondary and the way their linebackers flew to the ball will help us greatly because our line had to adjust to their speed. And then facing a bigger opponent like Perry opens your eyes a little bit. Whenever you get to league play and you’re facing smaller fast guys, you feel like you can handle them a little better.”

Two of the main weapons Sherry has relied on the last couple of seasons are Kemp and Posey. Kemp had a solid game last week with six receptions for 104 yards and two touchdowns, while Posey added 128 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

“Our attitude and effort were both there last week,” Posey said. “Things started clicking for us and we were able to move the ball consistently.”

Kemp said one of the biggest keys to last week’s outburst was how well the Bullogs’ big offensive line held up.

“Our line gave Parker time to scan the field and gave me and the rest of the receivers time to run routes,” Kemp said. “Things just opened up for us.”

The Bulldogs came into the season focused on improving a defense that gave up an average of 35.2 points per game. After giving up over 30 points in each of the first two games this season, Foster saw more of what he was looking for in the first half last week, but knows the consistency must keep improving.

“I like how our defense was playing in the first half,” Foster said. With the exception of one drive, I think we played the best half of defense we did all season. But then we had some breakdowns and mix-ups in coverages in the second half that cost us some big plays. I like the potential of what we can do, but we have to do it on a consistent basis.”

The Eagles come in with close wins over Minerva and Malvern along with a loss to Salem in which they hung tough with the Quakers the whole game. Running back Cade Wood has set the pace for the Eagles over the first three games with 251 rushing yards on 30 carries. United’s defense has surrendered 16 points per game so far.

Wood will miss this week’s game after dislocating his shoulder in the second quarter last week, but Sherry said the Eagles still have plenty of talented players to contend with.

“What really jumped out on film is the number of athletes they have on the perimeter,” Sherry said. “We have a good amount of athletes too, so I’m excited to see how that plays out. I thought their defensive line also looked pretty impressive. They run a lot of stunts up front which will pose a good challenge for us.”

The 0-2 start put the Bulldogs back in the pack in Division VI Region 21. A playoff trip will likely require them to run through the EOAC slate undefeated. The Bulldogs hope to take the first step this week.

“After the 0-2 start we sat down and said all of our goals as far as the playoffs and the league were still in front of us,” Foster said. “We’ll take things one game at a time. If we keep winning, then all of our goals are still attainable. If you add another loss in there then some of them get further and further away.”