PDT Sports Writer
LUCASVILLE — The Valley Indians have taken Al Davis’ famous quote of “Just win, baby” to heart.
In 24 out of the last 25 times Valley has taken to the gridiron, a W was in its favor. While last year’s offensive outburst drew outside attention, it’s the Indian defense — led by senior offensive/defensive lineman and Division V Southeast District Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Hettinger — that has placed top-seeded Valley (12-0) in the Division V, Region 19 Championship game for the second time in as many seasons, this time against a No. 6 Baltimore Liberty Union (10-2) club that is looking to go 3-0 against SOC-affiliated schools.
“We’re really close and we play well together,” Hettinger said. “Our defense, I think, is stronger.”
If there is a telling stat on how well this defense has performed, comparing the first two playoff games this year to the same rounds last year can be a great indicator. In wins last year over West Lafayette Ridgewood and Ashland Crestview, the Indians were out-gained 880-741 in total yardage.
After the two wins over Coal Grove and Bucyrus Wynford, Valley had a 573-419 edge. One thing that has helped is a plus-5 turnover margin, which included a 4-0 edge over the Royals last weekend.
“Once they get their first couple of drives over with, we settle down and we just wear people out,” Hettinger said.
Brandon Zimmer, who also plays on both sides of the line with Hettinger, admitted there is an adjustment period from what they’ve seen in practice all week to the game itself.
“You can’t really completely prepare for it so you have to adjust to that,” Zimmer said. “I’d say the biggest thing is that for some of these guys, it’s their first time they are starting this year and having playing time in the playoffs.”
For quarterback/defensive back Will Howard, he understands the defense has been the side of the ball that is getting the most attention. Last week, Howard and Brice Jordan accounted for the four interceptions thrown by Wynford quarterbacks. Each player ended back-to-back series by themselves with the takeaways.
“Last year, we were more of an offensive team and we looked to get the ball back and score more than taking pride in keeping other teams out of the end zone,” Howard said. “We thought that we could score with anybody so we really didn’t have to step up and keep teams out of the end zone as much last year as we felt this year.”
Running back/linebacker Brandon Jordan said the team feeds off the energy of big moments.
“When the offense gets on a roll, we get more aggressive (defensively) and greedy,” Jordan said.
While last year his attention was focused on defense and jumping in a few series on offense at receiver, Howard assumed the reigns at quarterback from recent graduate Blake Yates. He understood the role involved more leadership and is willing to do what it takes to get the offense clicking sooner.
“A lot of that was on me,” Howard said of last weekend’s slow start. “I was a little nervous before that game. I bobbled a snap, I couldn’t get the hand off there and and just really didn’t find the holes really well.”
Howard is one of just a handful of players on this roster that have played on the big stage in multiple platforms. Last winter, the basketball team captured the SOC II and was a Division III Southeast District Finalist. In the spring, the baseball team was a Division IV Regional Semifinalist.
“Just being there before really gives us confidence,” Howard said. “We all know that we can win, we’ve had success in other sports as well.
“We’ve won every game this year and we expect to win every game, that hasn’t changed. Just going out with the confidence helps a lot.”
Cody Leist can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 294, or firstname.lastname@example.org.