STEUBENVILLE - At Steubenville High School, an opportunity to compete in the Ohio football playoffs has become an annual late-fall rite under Hall of Fame head coach Reno Saccoccia.
Friday night's Division III, Region 11 first-round matchup at Harding Stadium against neighboring Indian Creek will mark Steubenville's 22nd appearance in the postseason during Saccoccia's 29 seasons.
Big Red's playoff history has been remarkably successful. The pride of Jefferson County has accounted for 13 regional championships and three udefeated state title-winning teams (1984, 2005 and 2006). On three other occasions, Steubenville finished as the state runner-up.
Big Red enters this week's game after still another perfect regular season, the seventh time this has happened in the last nine years and the 13th since 1983.
The visiting Redskins, enjoying a gridiron revival under the nine-year tutelage of Andrew Connor, are coming off an 8-2 season, Indian Creek's third winning season in a row. While this will be Connor's first playoff experience as a head coach and the school's initial opportunity since 1997, he feels the ''Creek" is already well-versed in lose-and-done situations in 2011.
''After a 2-2 start, we have been in a playoff mode the last six weeks because we knew we couldn't afford another loss,'' Connor said. ''It's been a tremendous season and I couldn't be more proud of the way our kids rallied. They definitely earned this chance to be in the playoffs.''
Creek's losses have come against two highly regarded opponents, Linsly and St. Clairsville. The Cadets take a 9-0 record into this week's highly anticipated battle of the undefeated against Wheeling Central, while the Red Devils (9-1) also are playoff-bound.
The Redskins' 19-7 victory against Route-43 rival Edison last Friday night, clinched a playoff berth for Connor's team and also earned it a share of the Buckeye Eight Conference crown with the Red Devils and Martins Ferry.
''It is a difficult process because they rarely lose there,'' Connor said of going to Harding. ''Their success starts with Coach Saccoccia and that entire coaching staff. Big Red plays football the old fashioned way, going at you 11-on-11 and forcing you into making mistakes.
''Our kids are going to go in there and play as hard as we can and give it our best shot to come home with a victory.''
Connor's high praise of Steubenville's success is matched by the respect Saccoccia maintains for Indian Creek's program.
''I'm happy for Andrew Connor and his staff,'' Saccoccia said after learning Big Red would be playing host to the Redskins this week. ''I'm glad to see them get into the playoffs, regardless of whether we play them or not. Andrew has worked hard to bring his team to where they are this week.
''For us, the fact that we get to play a team so close will add to the excitement of playing at home for our kids. Every year we talk about our first goal being to host a home game the first week of the playoffs.
''Step 1 is finished. The next goal is to win a regional championship but we've got a long way to reach the next step,.''
Balance on offense this year has been one of the main reasons cited by Connor for Indian Creek being a playoff team.
''In my early years we were primarily a running team but the emergence of the passing game really helped us,'' he said. ''Our quarterback's thrown for 17 touchdowns with just five picks."
''Defensively, we switched to a 4-3 over the summer and that also has been good for us. Getting to be ball was always our achilles heel because teams were able to spread us out. Now were've been able to put more speed on the field and be better able to defend against those spreads.''
Running the offense this season is two-year letterman David Kemp, primarily a receiver the past two seasons, although he did get several opportunities to play quarterbck.
Kemp's completion rate this season is at 50 percent - 62 completions in 124 attempts, netting 1,329 yards. His main receiver has been Mike Furda, who has 35 catches for 713 yards and 11 touchdowns. But another deep threat is the speedy Alex Young, whose 44-yard catch to the Edison 3 set up an important TD last week.
Indian Creek's running game remains a staple of the offense and obviously won't be overlooked by Big Red. Senior standout Mark Ludewig has accouted for 678 yards and nine toucdowns on 161 caries, while Logan Woods has rushed for 502 yards with eight touchdown totes on 80 carries.
''Kemp has a strong arm and really does a nice job of moving their team,'' Saccoccia said about the Redskins QB. ''Furda's his favorite weapon but Young's speed at wide receiver also helps them get the ball downfield."
Changing up things offensively is something Connor said the Redskins would be looking at in pregame preparations.
''Basically we are looking at changing our tendencies. If you allow Big Red to get into a rhythm, it can be pretty tough moving the ball.''
Steubenville was a huge favorite in its regular-season finale against visiting Cardinal O'Harra and won convincingly (39-0) as expected, giving Saccoccia a lot of reasons to be pleased with that performance.
''Even more than finishing the regular season 10-0, I'm very proud with the way we have improved every week Coming out of camp last August I thought we were a very average football team. We've worked hard to get better and it has paid off," Saccoccia said. ''I asked two of our kids on the sideline last Friday night if they ever thought we would be 10-0 after our two-a-days and they said no.''
The runaway victory once again allowed the coaching staff to get playing time for a lot of the backups and time for the starters to the opportunity to catch their breath.
Senior JoJo Pierro carried the ball only two times the entire game but produced 85 yards. His first carry covered 41 yards and set up Leshawn Luke's 11-yard TD carry. Overall this season, Pierro has gained 880 yards on 139 carries, scoring 15 times.
Quarterback Marcus Prather, another one of Big Red's 15 seniors, continued his stellar play in limited action against Cardinal O'Hara. Prather completed 7 of 10 passes for 104 yards. Prather is completing 62 percent of his passes, 91 of 146, for 1,343 yards and 14 touchdowns.