By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
After beating the best Erie, Warren and Crawford counties could offer last week, Mercer County’s contingent now answers to no one other than itself.
This weekend’s District 10 tournament includes a quartet of head-to-head semifinal showdowns in Class A and AA — meaning half the area aggregation’s season will be shortcircuited by familiar foes.
Tonight’s single-A tilts include top-seeded West Middlesex meeting Farrell and defending D-10 titlist Sharpsville slated to face Lakeview. Saturday’s AA card includes Grove City challenging defending champion Hickory, while Wilmington will take on Greenville.
The AA doubleheader at Slippery Rock University has Hickory and Grove City as the 1 p.m. matinee (previewed in Thursday’s Herald), with Wilmington and Greenville squaring off in the 7 p.m. nightcap.
Where do coaches come out on meeting the same team twice in the same season?
“It’s been 27 years (coaching) for me, and I’ve been on both sides of the fence,” related Hickory head coach Bill Brest. “I’ve won both games, lost both games, split them. I don’t know what the answer is. ... ”
“If you lose (the first meeting) you do a lot more gambling (in the rematch),” said 17th-season Sharpsville skipper Paul Piccirilli. “If you’re the winning team the first time around I don’t think you gamble as much; you do what you’ve been doing all year.”
“Whether you meet (Sharpsville) twice or three times, they’re a good football team, so I don’t think it means whole lot,” Lakeview head coach Dan York offered.
So would that give the edge to West Middlesex, Sharpsville, Hickory and Wilmington, who won the regular-season meetings? Or will Farrell, Lakeview, Grove City and Greenville gain the edge as underdogs?
“We’re definitely tickled to be the underdog,” said Jarrett Samuels, Farrell Steelers’ skipper. “But we definitely have the same chance (the Big Reds) have to advance.”
“To be on that side with this team, I like our position. When you’re the favorite, there’s a lot of pressure. We’ve experienced both sides, but I relish this,” Samuels admitted.
“West Middlesex won our (region), they were favored most of the year. Even the coaches told the kids that,” Piccirilli recalled. “We’re actually going in as the underdog, and I kind’ve like that role right now. We’ve got nothing to lose, and we’re playing loose. It’s a nice feeling.”
“I can remember back in (nineteen) ninety-one when we had Andy Blatt,” Greenville Trojans’ taskmaster Brian Herrick recalled. “We put it on Hickory pretty good in the regular season (32-7), then it got down to the District 10 championship game and we lost by a point (21-20). Hickory really made some adjustments that hurt us,” Herrick continued, “and we didn’t adjust at all because we beat them so bad the first time. So you just don’t know.”
While the downside is losing a quartet of teams this weekend, obviously it guarantees Mercer County again will have the opportunity to lend to its legacy to 2-decade domination of District 10.
With the addition of defending AAA titlist Grove City to AA, the Eagles engaged in a fierce regular-season Region 3-AA rivalry with Wilmington and Hickory.
“People don’t realize,” Grove City head coach Jeff Bell noted, “but in our region — A, double-A and with Slippery Rock (AAA) — every week you better have a solid game plan and have your kids coached up, or you’re gonna get beat. You better be ready and you better have a heckava game plan.
“If you’re playing anybody in Mercer County, you better be ready,” Bell continued. “Week in and week out, with the coaches and the competition, you better be ready to go. There are great staffs and they get their kids ready. There are very few easy games.”
Since 1994, Wilmington has advanced to the District 10 championship game 13 times, winning 10. As Greyhounds’ headmaster Terry Verrelli said,
“ ... As long as we’ve movin’ on. ... it’s starting to become something that does happen every year, and there’s nothing wrong with that — that’s great. The kids behind (their predecessors) see what they have done and when their turn comes, they’re ready to play.”
“It’s exciting!” Brest said. “It’s a great time of the year to be coaching football, being with your staff, being with your players. It’s another week, another opportunity, and we don’t take it for granted.
“We take it one week at a time, and we’re blessed to have another opportunity. We’ll do the best we can to be successful on Saturday,” Brest concluded.
Farrell (6-4) vs. West Middlesex (9-2), 7 p.m.
Wilmington High Greyhounds Stadium
In Week 3, Middlesex manhandled Farrell (38-6), and the Big Reds’ ringing victory bell continues to reverberate in the Steelers’ ears.
The Big Reds are enjoying the program’s best season since the 15-win ’06 squad advanced to the PIAA championship game. That was the Big Reds’ last success against the Steelers until this past September as Luke Patten (6 carries, 141 yards rushing, 2 TDs; 52-yard TD reception) paced the Big Reds.
However last week Farrell forged its best performance of the season against Mercyhurst Prep. And Middlesex mentor Jason McElhaney knows the talent level from last week (Iroquois) to this week will be vastly different. Following his team’s quarterfinal-round rout, McElhaney mused,
“(Farrell’s) a good football team, and everybody at this time of year is — it shows the strength of our region (1-A) ... ”
Samuels is seeking his 50th win as well as the program’s 4th district crown in 5 years under his direction. Overall, Farrell has forged 6 D-10 titles, and an equal number of WPIAL championships.
“We’re a work in progress, but we’re getting really close,” Samuels said. “It’s amazing where we’re at!
“ ... For this to be a ‘down’ year, we’ve done a pretty good job,” Samuelsa insisted. “It’s been a lot of ups and downs, a roller-coaster, but the kids have been resilient. There’s been a lot of growing pains, but we’ve been able to coach these guys up, and it’s been amazing progress they’ve been making progress each and every practice.
“This reminds me of our second year (’08). We entered (the D-10 tourney) as the third seed and weren’t even ranked in the state — no one even looked at us,” Samuels recalled. “But we got better each and every week. We saw that progression.”
Regarding the Big Reds, Samuels said, “Coming into this game, West Middlesex is the favorite; they’ve been the pick since training camp. ... I knew they (have) a championship pedigree from the basketball team with some of the same kids. We respect their program.
“They are a great football team.
“We’re going to focus on our mistakes (10 penalties, 3 fumbles, a turnover) ... analyze that first game. We gave them 20 points on turnovers, mismanagement of the ball,” Samuels assessed.
“Coming into this game we’re going to pull out all the stops. We’re not holding anything back — onside-kicks, trick plays.
“We have one goal, and that’s to advance to the championship game. We’re playing with no pressure, while (the Big Reds) are a senior-dominated team,” Samuels said. “We’re looking for a good team effort, and that’s what it’s gonna take, but we’re gonna play loose.
“Even though we’ve been up and down, right now we’re playing at a high level. We want to continue and advance to the championship game. This is familiar territory,” Samuels said, concluding, “I’ve told the kids I’m used to being out on the field and practicing on Thanksgiving morning. That’s a tradition we have here at Farrell.”
The game will be broadcast on NewsTalk 790 (WPIC AM), with Mark Slezak and Bob Greenburg calling the action.
Lakeview (7-4) vs. Sharpsville (9-1), 7 p.m.,
Grove City High Forker Field
Sharpsville shut out the Sailors (42-0) in Week 8).
Piccirilli pronounced his club healthy, then regarding the rematch, said, “With Lakeview, I think they’re gonna mix it up a little bit more, gamble a little bit more; with us, we’re gonna be true to the vest, what worked the first time.”
The revenge factor is more of a media-driven concept, Piccirilli said, noting, “You’re playing just another game; it doesn’t matter what happened at the beginning of the year.”
Last year Sharpsville advanced further than any county club — to the state’s Final four. But placing pressure on the Blue Devils, Piccirilli said, is not part of the game plan.
“Some years,” Piccirilli mused, “five-and-five is a great record. We haven’t had too many of those lately. Our kids here at Sharpsville play hard and do whatever we ask, which makes it so much fun coaching here.”
Playing — and winning — in November never gets old.
“No, never. That’s what we coach for,” Piccirilli said. “Our primary goal is to make the playoffs, play for District 10, then get the chance to get in the state tournament. That’s what we shoot for every year.
“We want to be practicing on Thanksgiving day.
Last week Lakeview laid out top-seeded Region 2-A entry Eisenhower (36-6), though Sailors’ skipper York said it was not his club’s best outing this season.
“(Eisenhower) had played two of the teams we played (Mercer, Conneaut Area), and those are two teams we beat, so we had a pretty good feeling going in. We played pretty well, and (Zach) Bigley took care of the offense (156 yards rushing, including 19-, 72- and 64-yard scoring sprints, plus 81 yards passing including a TD toss).
“If I had to go back and (choose Lakeview’s best game), I’d say Conneaut,” York continued, though he admitted his Sailors’ success tonight will hinge on exceeding that conquest of Conneaut.
“Undoubtedly,” York affirmed. “We’ve gotta generate some offense, more than that first game (140 total yards, 2 turnovers), and we’ve got to slow (the Blue Devils) down somehow.
“I’ve traded (game) tapes with Coach Piccirilli twice, and he said these kids run (Sharpsville’s) system the whole way, from Midgets clear through high school. That’s a definite advantage for them. Their kids know the terminology, which is definitely an advantage.
“Their offensive line is better than West Middlesex’s offensive line,” York opined. “People ask me to compare the two. I think West Middlesex has better athletes than Sharpsville. Sharpsville has good athletes, but West Middlesex definitely has better speed. But Sharpsville’s offensive scheme and blocking patterns — the blocking rules — that they do for that wing-T can be complicated.
“But when you start out in the sixth- or seventh-grade, by the time you’re a sophomore you’ve already run it three, four years.”
Leading Lakeview is prolific Blake Reddick, who has rushed for 3,103 yards and 27 touchdowns the past 2 seasons, averaging 6.5 yards/carry.
“When we start out a lot of (opposing) teams think we’re a ‘one-trick pony’ with Blake,” York related. “but Bigley’s the one who came through (against Eisenhower). We he runs the option, when he’s reading well, throwing well, that’s what it’s gonna take to do better this game (aginast Sharpsville). Zach has to have big game.”
The game will be broadcast on ESPN 96.7 (WLLF FM), with Ryan Briggs and Chris Burtch calling the action.
(at Slippery Rock University’s Mihalik-Thompson Stadium)
Greenville (6-5) vs. Wilmington (8-2)
These programs previously battled for the D-10 AA title, with Wilmington winning both (’00, ’01).
The Greyhounds grounded Greenville in Week 9 (26-0), but Greenville garnered its initial playoff win in 6 seasons with last week’s conquest of Corry. The win snapped Greenville’s 5-year opening-round drought.
“It was a nice win and exciting the way it all went down,” Herrick related. “We were getting buried early (14-0), made a ton of turnovers. But the way we fought back in the second half was nice.”
The humble Herrick said the gorilla on Greenville’s back was good “I think moreso for the kids. They hear the same things I do — ‘You can get there (playoffs), but what do you do when you get there?’
“Right away (beginning of the season) our kids read some publications from up north, and one had us seventh (in the region) and one had us eighth. So the kids have known all year we weren’t the number one pick in the (region). We’ve been the underdogs a lot. But with these kids, it doesn’t seem to bother them.”
Wilmington walloped Fairview in its tourney lidlifter, so last week’s conquest of Corry by the Trojans was little consolation for this week’s reality.
“Wilmington, Grove City or Hickory, I’m not sure I’d choose any of those three (for a semifinals opponent),” Herrick admitted. “But, the more you win, the bigger the opponent the next week. Obviously, (the Hounds) are very good.
“We play Wilmington every year, so you know exactly what they’re gonna do,” Herrick continued. “The issue is trying to defense (Wilmington’s wing-T), trying to come up with a different plan.
“Obviously, the first time it didn’t work real well.
“We know we will not play against a better-coached team,” Herrick said regarding Verrelli, who can establish the distric’s career coaching wins record with No. 271. “They’ll be ready for everything we do. The key for us is playing physical football right out of the gate, move the football. The first time our defense played pretty well, but our offense sputtered; when we got down (in the Red Zone) we didn’t finish drives.”
Though playing the Greyhounds, the Trojans are the “dogs,” though they relish that role.
“It is what it is until you prove yourself, so it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks,” Herrick reasoned. “We got off to a bad start (losing the 1st 2 games), so we told the kids, ‘If you want to get better, start practicing harder, get better every week, and the kids bought into it. They’ve come to work every day.
“Their resiliency has been fun to watch. In the past, we’ve had some teams that, if they got down, you could just mail it in,” Herrick continued. “Against Wilmington the first time, we got down, but these kids played hard the whole game.
“Actually, it’s fun to be in this position, and the kids are really excited,” Herrick concluded. “Basically, going in, nobody’s picking us to win, so you go in and give it all you’ve got and see what happens.
“On any given day, anything can happen.”
The game will be broadcast on ESPN 96.7 (WLLF FM), with Ryan Briggs and Chris Burtch calling the action, and also on WGRP (940 AM).
Grove City (9-1) vs. Hickory (9-1)
The game will be simulcast on NewsTalk 790 (WPIC AM) and ESPN 96.7 (WLLF FM), with Mark Slezak and Bob Greenburg calling the action.
Herald sports writer Rob Malsom contributed research for this preview.