PDT Sports Writer
The name Baltimore Liberty Union should sound familiar for Wheelersburg fans.
Four years ago, the Lions ended the Pirates season with a 14-7 decision at Jackson in the Division V, Region 19 semifinals. Neither team has a player who was in high school in the previous encounter so fittingly, Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward feels his team isn’t putting as much stock into what happened four years ago.
“It’s a fresh slate of playoffs for a lot of our kids,” Woodward said. “Our seniors were a part of that 2010 team that went two-deep in the playoffs but these kids are just enjoying playing football together. They have done a tremendous job each and every week of really getting better.”
With the results of Hurricane Sandy reaching the region, Woodward was glad this contest would be a Saturday night affair. Although it altered his approach towards practice for the week, the boss is optimistic.
“I’m really excited about where our team is at right now mentally,” Woodward said. “They are extremely excited about the opportunity to play in the postseason, extremely excited about playing at home and we’re excited to have the Lions coming down.”
Who will be coming down Saturday for a Region 19 quarterfinal game is a No. 6 Liberty Union squad (8-2) that finished as the runner up in the Cardinal Division of the Mid-State League. The Lions’ lone league loss came to undefeated Pataskala Licking Heights, who is in the playoffs in Division II, Region 7.
“From what I can tell from film, (they) seem to be a sound football team,” Woodward said. “Coach Dan Johnson does a tremendous job with his teams.”
While Johnson’s philosophies have stayed the same, Woodward feels this squad isn’t has big as the one he witnessed in 2008. The first name to pop out of Woodward’s mouth when it came to players to watch was running back Jacob Basso.
This season, he has racked up 1,230 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns in 194 carries behind an offensive line that early on the season went unbalanced like Coal Grove but switched toward more of the Wildcat in the most recent contests. Basso also has thrown for a touchdown pass in his two attempts.
“While they haven’t put up big numbers throwing the ball, they have been effective, especially early on in the year,” Woodward said. “But the run game is really where they’re at and they’ve done some self-reflection too as they’ve moved throughout the season.”
Defensively, junior linebacker Justin Barber leads the team in tackles with 131 while junior defensive tackle Luke Hannan is second with 74.
“They’re much like the Pirates in terms of not that overpowering size but have kids that just like to get after it and play good, hard-nosed football,” Woodward said. “We look forward to be a good, hard-fought game and again, excited that we’ve got them at home.”
No. 3 Wheelersburg (8-2) got back on the winning track last week with a 42-20 win at West. But it was the Week 9 loss at SOC II champion Valley where Woodward felt his team turned the corner after a humbling experience.
“We found out a little bit about ourselves in terms of things we needed to improve on and it’s just better enhancing us as we move into this postseason play,” Woodward said.
Last year was the first time since 2006 and third occurrence since the start of the new millennium in which the Pirates were not in the playoffs. The drive to avoid back-to-back years without playoff berths since 1984-85 was on this team’s mind from the onset.
“We got a lot of pats on the back last year for putting together a season, coaches and players, a lot of people quite weren’t expecting,” Woodward said. “We expect to battle for the SOC II championship every year, we expect to make the postseason every year and when we don’t reach those goals, we’re not happy.”
Cody Leist can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 294, or firstname.lastname@example.org.