It's playoff time once again.
The second season has arrived for Warren County high school football teams - three in all, and the opening round of the District 10 and District 9 tournaments feature some stiff competition.
The Eisenhower Knights will square off against Sharpsville at Corry's Sheen Field in search of their first non-region win in over a year, Sheffield makes a return trip to Curwensville hoping to avenge a loss to the Golden Tide just two weeks ago, and Warren opens the Class AAA playoffs against perennial-powerhouse General McLane at Sox Harrison Stadium in McLane's backyard in Edinboro.
Times Observer photo by Kiley Fischer
Eisenhower coach Jim Penley gives directions to quarterback Robbie Wilston during practice Thursday night at Eisenhower High School. The Knights open their second consecutive playoff run against Sharpsville Friday at Corry Area High School.
Eisenhower (7-3) vs. Sharpsville (6-4), Corry's Sheen Field, 7 p.m. Friday
Eisenhower defeated Sharpsville, 35-0, en route to a District 10 title in 1992, but more recent history has leaned toward the side of the Blue Devils. The Knights are 0-4 against Sharpsville since that win, losing those games by a combined score of 187-23. Additionally, Ike has not beaten a current Region 1 team since the most recent D-10 realignment. The Blue Devils enter the playoffs with a 6-4 record that features three region losses of six or fewer points.
"Sharpsville is the premier program in (District 10 Class A), let alone Region 1," said Eisenhower coach Jim Penley. "Region 1 is tougher, no doubt. It is a more violent and physical league. They live and die football down there, flat and simple. South teams train year-round to win in the playoffs. That is why we play them, so our schedule is tougher. That is how we have gone from 0-10 to two-time champs in Region 2. We play the toughest schedule in our league."
The Knights are led by the senior duo of quarterback Rob Wilston and running back Alex Johnson. Wilston is 74-of-133 for 1,130 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air along with 500 yards and six scores on the ground, and Johnson has 1,138 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 145 carries. Junior receiver Jarrett Johnson has caught a team-high 22 passes for 391 yards and seven touchdowns.
"This has been the goal all along, to get back to the playoffs and have another crack at the Region 1 teams," added Penley. "They are the best, and we strive to get to their level some day, and we hope it is this Friday. We have to limit mistakes, hope they make a couple, and just try to play as physical as they do. If we do, we hope to have a chance. If we don't, Sharpsville is too good of a team. They are back-to-back D-10 champs for a reason."
Last meeting (Sept. 2, 2011): Sharpsville 52, Eisenhower 0
Sheffield (5-5) at Curwensville (8-1), Riverside Stadium, 7 p.m. Friday
If the first round of the District 9 Class A tournament feels a little familiar to Sheffield, it feels even more familiar to Curwensville. While Sheffield was playing Kane in the Allegheny Mountain League title game last week, Curwensville was off, meaning Friday night's game will mark back-to-back meetings against the Wolverines for the Golden Tide. Sheffield is hoping for a better result this time around after losing to the Tide by a score 38-14 on October 25. The Wolverines need to do a better job slowing down Curwensville running back Zach Tibbens, who shredded the Sheffield defense with 238 yards and four touchdowns and is closing in on the 2,000-yard mark for the season.
"It's a unique situation when you get to play a team again only two weeks apart," said Sheffield coach Dave Fitch. "We (have) seen what our mistakes were against Curwensville which are 90 percent fixable, however, we need to tackle Tibbens much better than we did the last time. When we plugged the gaps like we were supposed to, we stopped him at or behind the line of scrimmage. They use some unbalanced sets and if you do not adjust to how you line up against them, they will beat you to a gap and that happened too often the last time. We have worked this week on our defensive formations and hope those adjustments will help slow him down."
For the Wolverines, sophomore running back Jareke Jackson has 873 yards and 13 touchdowns on 125 carries, junior quarterback Adam Higby is 86-of-169 for 1,003 yards and eight touchdowns, and Noah Heeter has hauled in 31 passes for 480 yards and five scores.
"We all know we earned a spot in this game and the anger comes from being the seventh seed after beating Smethport," added Fitch. "One thing for sure is many of our players do not want the ride to end and would love to cross off one more accomplishment on their list of goals they set at the beginning of the year, which was recording a playoff victory. I know many have us as the underdog and are not expecting a close game. I believe our kids will show they belong in the playoffs."
Last meeting (Oct. 25, 2013): Curwensville 38, Sheffield 14
Warren (7-3) vs. General McLane (7-3), Edinboro University's Sox Harrison Stadium, 7 p.m. Friday
After losing 16 seniors and head coach Brad Wright from last year's District 10 Class AAA playoff team, not many people expected the Dragons to return in 2013. Seven wins later, and first-year coach Greg Latimer has a new-look Warren team back in the hunt for a D-10 title. Standing in the way is General McLane out of Region 6. The Lancers' run-heavy offense is led by senior Tyler Sanders, who has 1,099 yards and 16 touchdowns on 168 carries this season. Quarterback Zach Fox is 32-of-61 for 759 passing yards and 13 touchdowns to go along with 332 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, and Greg Streiff has carried the ball 78 times for 447 yards and five scores. As a team, McLane averages just over 250 rushing yards per game.
"Becoming playoff eligible (was) a goal of our team and the boys should be extremely proud of themselves," said Dragons' coach Greg Latimer. "They've battled through injury and have done what's necessary to take the team to the next level - playoffs. We recognized early on that we had a special group of very young athletes and a handful of 'senior vets' who would hold our team together in tough times. Our six seniors - Luke Wortman, Geoff Stewart, Cody Gunn, Aaron Borger, Garrett Smead and Josh Atkins - were always there. They are not a vocal group of leaders; however, their actions on the field and expectation to win sent a very clear message to the underclassmen."
One of those underclassmen is junior quarterback D.J. Fehlman, who is 100-of-171 for 1,886 passing yards and tied Austin Jerman's school record for single-season touchdown passes (28) in last week's win over Titusville. In that same game, junior receiver Tanner Stanz caught his 13th touchdown pass of the year to break Jordan Willetts' previous mark of 12. Both Jerman and Willetts set their respective records during the 2012 season in which Warren won its first playoff game in 10 years.
"We're almost a mirror image of last years team," said Latimer. "A little less fire power on the offense, but the desire to be winners is stronger than ever."
A win against the Lancers would give the Dragons a second shot at the Slippery Rock Rockets, who received a first-round bye after finishing the regular season with an undefeated record.
"We don't feel there is any pressure (heading into the playoffs). Our team has developed confidence in themselves over these last 10 games and learned to support each other, play hard, and win as a team. General McLane has a very good team and so do we."
Last meeting (Aug. 31, 2007): General McLane 34, Warren 14