SLIPPERY ROCK — Ridgway will find itself in familiar territory when it travels to Slippery Rock tonight for the PIAA quarterfinals, as the Elkers are set for a rematch with the Wilmington Greyhounds, Class AA champions of District 10
It’s the second time in as many years the Elkers (10-1) and Greyhounds (11-0) have met in the state quarterfinals. A year ago, Wilmington rolled to a 56-14 victory over Ridgway en route to a PIAA runner-up finish.
And while it may be another uphill battle this year, Ridgway head coach Mark Heindl says his Elkers are eager for the opportunity.
“We are looking forward to going down to Slippery Rock University,” he said. “We’re excited for the challenge. They’re a good football team, but we didn’t get here by luck, either, so we’ll see what happens.”
Wilmington, which knocked off District 5’s Chestnut Ridge 35-20 last week to reach the quarterfinals, features eight new starters on each side of the ball this season, but it’s been a reload rather than a rebuild for the Greyhounds.
“They definitely have some new faces in some new places, but they doesn’t change them,” Heindl said. “They’re a football factory, and they just replace kids over and over. To get to the state final the last two years says a lot about them.”
The foundation of this year’s run-first Greyhound team is built around a 1-2 punch in the backfield. Running backs Ethan Susen and Darren Miller have combined for 1,839 yards this year, and can be used in a variety of ways.
Susen (672 yards) is traditionally the feature back, but missed three games due to injury. His absence was hardly felt, though, as Miller rushed for 1,167 yards this season.
“They do a lot of diverse things. One minute it’s the sweep, the next it’s a trap or a counter,” Heindl said. “But our kids can’t look into that. They just have to play their gap responsibilities. We know (Wilmington) will make plays, so we have to limit big gains.”
But you can’t stack the box and expect just the run either. Greyhound quarterback Caelan Bender has been incredibly efficient this season, throwing for 1,221 yards and 19 touchdowns. Perhaps even more impressive, though, is that he hasn’t been picked off a single time this year.
Most of his damage is done through play action.
“A lot of teams stack the box, so a lot of his yardage comes through play action,” Heindl said. “Last week, they ran the ball a bunch and then hit a pop pass over the middle for a big touchdown. You can’t just load the box; you have to respect the pass as well.
“With their caliber of athletes, we’re expecting everything.”
Heindl says the Elkers must do three things to stay in the game and have a shot: create turnovers, go on long drives that eat clock and avoid getting into a shootout or falling behind early.
Creating turnovers, of course, has been a focus of the Elkers all season long. Ridgway is averaging between two and three turnovers a game, as it’s forced 17 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries on the year.
That focus on takeaways was crucial in the D9 championship win over Clarion, as Ridgway scored 28 points off of six Clarion turnovers in a 56-35 win.
Meanwhile, on offense, Ridgway has had the benefit of deploying multiple playmakers in different formations all season long. Being able to do so against Wilmington will be of the utmost importance, as it will allow the Elkers to avoid being one-dimensional against a Greyhound defense Heindl says is stout.
“They don’t do anything fancy, they just line up and play football,” he said. “At any given time, they try to keep seven in the box and make things difficult for teams… Our offensive line has a challenge, but our guys haven’t backed down all year, and we’re looking forward to this challenge.”
Among Ridgway’s most versatile playmakers are Jake Wickett and Matt Dush, who each split time at both receiver and running back.
Dush has run for 559 yards and eight scores on the ground, and has added 680 receiving yards and four touchdowns receptions. Wickett, meanwhile, has amassed 649 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing and 470 yards and six touchdowns receiving.
Elker quarterback Paul Gresco has also had an impressive campaign, throwing for 2,122 yards and 21 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Receiver Austin Green has caught nine touchdown receptions and racked up 614 receiving yards, as well.
With so many playmakers available, the Elkers will have to take advantage of their own versatility and move the ball consistently.
“Our best defense will have to be our offense. We’ll have to control the line of scrimmage, and more importantly, the clock,” Heindl said. “Last year, when we played, (Wilmington) came out running out of the gate, and it was 21-0 right away. We can’t get into a situation like that… We have to limit their possessions as much as possible.”
And at the end of the day, Heindl says the Elkers will throw all they can at the vaunted Greyhounds.
“We’re excited for the opportunity, and we’re going to throw all of our cards on the table,” he said.
Kickoff for tonight’s game is slated for 7 o’clock.