River in search of his first regional title against Newark Catholic | News, Sports, Jobs
Mike Flannery took a step back earlier this week and reflected on the perspective he had on his River Pilots football team in August where it currently stands.
The veteran Pilots head coach didn’t hurt either.
He admitted that when his club were preparing for the season, he thought they had the makings of a team that could put on a special season.
“I absolutely thought it was possible” said Flannery. “I had that thought and as the season progressed we continued to improve every week.”
River has the key ingredients for post-season success.
Seniors and talents.
Both have done a lot to help River to eight straight wins since a mid-September loss to Barnesville.
However, there was more to this team than that, according to its head coach.
“The camaraderie of the band is one of the best I’ve experienced,” said Flannery. “We have 42 kids on the roster and each one of them gets along really well and likes each other. They’ve known each other and played together since they’ve been playing youth sports together. Every kid on the team doesn’t want to nothing more than our victory. And you can’t put a value on that.
Clearly, Flannery was right and the season adds another chapter this weekend in the Division VII, Region 27 championship game.
The Pilots (12-1) will go for the first regional football title on the school field on Saturday night at McFarland Stadium in Cambridge against perennial powerhouse Newark Catholic.
“Everyone knows who we are playing against,” said Flannery. “Honestly though, what more could you ask for as a player or a manager than this opportunity?”
While the only regional title for pilots in the field was an honorary title presented by OHSAA 50 years ago, when a computer glitch prevented pilots from participating in the tournament when only one team was in the field.
“Other than that (1972 season) we made the regional final twice and lost to Malvern and Danville,” said Flannery.
On the other side, however, Newark Catholic brings a boatload of postseason hits. The Green Wave has won 27 regional championships, including the last two. The wave has qualified for the state championship game 15 times and is the defending state runner-up.
“They are what they are,” said Flannery. “They are in this position practically every year, but we are not replaying their history or their tradition. We face the 2022 team and they face our 2022 team.”
River really hasn’t been challenged in the playoffs yet. The pilots edged Miller, Fairfield Christian and Caldwell by a combined total of 146-24. So far they have benefited from a running clock in every tournament match.
“There is no doubt that we are preparing to face the best team we have faced all year,” Flannery continued. “We have to bring our ‘A’ game and be solid in all phases of the game. I know it sounds cliché, but it really is the truth.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Newark Catholic enters the game with a 10-1 record. Regular season games against Bishop Ready and Columbus Academy have been canceled. The Wave have won eight straight and collected just seven points in playoff wins over Rosecrans, Notre Dame and Waterford.
“They are in good health” Flannery said of Newark Catholic. “They are very competent and solid. They really don’t do anything fancy, but they are really good at what they do.
The green wave is led by sophomore quarterback Miller Hutchison, who completed 95 of 148 passes for 1,668 yards and 18 touchdowns. He was only knocked out four times.
On the pitch, senior Mason Hackett is one of those players who regains his health at the right time. He returned to the line-up last week against Waterford after missing the previous three games through injury. In total, he amassed 1,191 yards and scored 21 touchdowns on 133 carries.
“(Hackett) is one of the best Division VII running backs I’ve seen,” Flannery noted. “The quarterback is very effective and played with a lot of composure for being a young kid. He throws a nice ball and they are very deep at the receiver.
In Hackett’s absence, second student Mikey Hess assumed most of the duties. He was impressive with 87 carries for 700 yards and scored nine touchdowns.
The receivers who have impressed Flannery are led by senior Grant Moore. He caught 34 passes for 707 yards and scored 11 touchdowns.
The Pilots’ defense has been solid this season and, according to Flannery, is getting better week by week. Senior Brayden Strawn has recorded 62 solo tackles and 49 assisted saves. He posted 16 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and an astonishing 22 quarterback pressures.
Offensively, the Pilots have been explosive, efficient and versatile. They showed their ability to run and throw the ball effectively.
“We were able to find a lot of different ways to exploit other teams,” said Flannery. “We will search and try to figure that out again this week. We’re going to adopt plan A and if that doesn’t work we’ll adapt to plan B. We have to keep the chains moving, which has been our game plan for most of the season.
River’s offense is led by junior quarterback Kabel Isaly. He completed 133 of 199 passes for 2,078 yards and 32 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He also rushed for 407 yards and seven other scores.
Brody Lollathin — the Eastern District’s Co-Offensive Player of the Year — caught 33 passes for nearly half of Isaly’s yardage (990) and exactly half of his touchdowns. He also rushed 45 times for 479 yards and seven touchdowns.
River Thompson caught 49 passes for 662 yards and 10 touchdowns.
When the pilots direct the ball, a multitude of players are used. Junior Kaden Johnson is the leader with 610 yards and 10 touchdowns. Finn Bowers had 506 yards and scored six times. Ty Long, who is also a defensive back, has 420 yards and six touchdowns.
These Pilot running backs had plenty of room to work thanks to the play of a wide and veteran offensive line. Strawn is the center, while Marshall Bier and Hunter Nething occupy the guard positions. At tackle, Mason Randall and Matt Gregg get the call. Sophomore Peyton Blue, who also shines at linebacker, transitioned well to tight end. Cooper Cordery and Zeke Zola are rotating up front.
“As a coach, I can’t ask more of our children” said Flannery. “They did everything we asked of them and played really well.”
Newark’s Catholic defense is led by senior linebacker Brendan Sheehan. He racked up 56 tackles and had three assists.
“They fly to the ball and they have the best defensive backfield we’ve seen,” said Flannery. “They cover everything you try and get after football.”