South Range alive and kicking
GREENFORD–When South Range defeated Akron Manchester 42-36 in the third week of the season, the two teams were nearly dead-even statistically except for one very important aspect.
Both squads scored the same number of touchdowns, but the Panthers (thanks to an uncertain kicking game) went for two every time and came up empty on all of their conversions. South Range kicker Brandon Youngs, meanwhile, cashed in four extra points while the Raiders also added one two point conversion.
Since then, the Raiders kicking game has been in a state of flux as Youngs was lost for the season with a broken leg and backup kicker Levi Taylor (also a lineman) went down with a torn ACL and a torn meniscus in the fourth week.
However, an improbable comeback by Taylor in last week’s first-round victory over Crestview seems to have stabilized things as top-seeded South Range (11-0) and fourth-seeded Manchester (9-2) prepare for their second-round rematch at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Louisville’s Leopard Stadium.
Seven weeks of rigorous rehab allowed Taylor’s knee to be strong enough to resume kicking duty for last weeks game. He drilled all four of his attempts as the Raiders beat the Rebels 28-14.
In a game that could once again be decided by a razor-thin margin, the Raiders will take any little advantage they can get.
“We weren’t sure if Levi was going to be able to come back, but he did a great job for us last week,” South Range coach Dan Yeagley said. “It was great to see him come back and be able to contribute this season.”
Taylor, who is a senior, said he refused to accept that the injury meant the end of his high school career and was willing to do everything he could to come back and help the team despite the pain.
“The doctor said there was a small possibility I could come back and kick, but it didn’t feel good at the time,” Taylor said. “I wanted to keep my options open to see if there was any way I could come back. I got on the exercise bike a ton and did a lot of therapy. I did a lot of leg raises and leg presses to try and get all of the surrounding muscles strong enough for me to give it a try.”
Taylor said he began feeling better in week 10 and decided he was ready.
“I could definitely feel that it wasn’t the same, but it was good enough. Last week went pretty well,” Taylor said.
The primary concern for the Raiders heading into tonight is finding a way to slow down Manchester’s standout sophomore running back Ethan Wright who comes in with 2,360 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns. Wright, who was the Principals Athletic Conference player of the year, racked up 237 yards on 23 attempts against the Raiders in September and scored on runs of 92 and 21 yards, in addition to hauling in a 10-yard touchdown pass.
“He has all of the attributes you want in a running back,” Yeagley said. “What stands out most is his speed and vision. He hits the hole fast and can get skinny in a hurry to slip through a hole. Once he hits the open field, he can outrun everybody. He also has soft hands. They put him out in the slot and use him as a receiver, so he’s very scary in that respect also.”
Yeagley said the Raiders need to do a better job of wrapping up Wright on first contact.
“One time in the last game, we hit him seven times and he still scored,” Yeagley said. “We need to tackle better and make sure we swarm to the ball.”
The Panthers’ passing game will have a different look this time as Manchester’s original starting quarterback Robbie Wagner was lost for the season with a neck injury in week seven.
Senior receiver JoJo France, grandson of head coach Jim France, has stepped in and done a fine job, completing 63 percent of his passes for 472 yards to go with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions.
France is also a threat on the ground and burned the Raiders with a 92-yard touchdown run in the first meeting.
“He throws the ball better than we thought, and he’s getting better as the season goes on,” Yeagley said. “When he was at receiver, he was very good after the catch. He’s a threat on every play.”
The Raiders can counter with plenty of weapons of their own.
All season, they have forced opposing defenses to pick their poison with the trio of dual-threat quarterback Aniello Buzzacco, physical running back Peyton Remish and big-play wideout Mathias Combs.
Buzzacco comes in with 1,690 passing yards, 920 rushing yards and 36 total touchdowns. He had a big night through the air last time against the Panthers with 215 yards on just seven completions. Remish comes with with 1,469 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. He is also a force on defense at linebacker. Combs has 969 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns, while receiver Josh Stear (488 yards, five touchdowns) provides a solid secondary option.
The 42 points Manchester coughed up against the Raiders were tied for the most they gave up all season. The Panthers are led defensively by linebackers Hunter Foster (117 tackles) and Jake Baker (84 tackles) as well as defensive lineman Sam Hettich (five sacks).
“Overall, I think both teams have evolved and gotten better since our first meeting,” Yeagley said.
In their first year as an independent, the Raiders have tested themselves against a variety of tough competition. They said the Panthers stood out as the physically toughest team of them all.
“The physicality is what I remember most from that first game,” Buzzacco said. “They really hit and they’re very fast. It was one of the most physical games I’ve ever played in.”