Eastwood and Genoa have been the class of the Suburban Lakes League and Northern Buckeye Conference, and this year is no different.
When the two teams compete against one another for the 55th time on Friday at Freedom Field, a league championship or co-championship (if either team lost last Friday) will be at stake. Genoa leads the series, which dates back to when both schools were in the Northern Lakes League, 30 to 24.
Unlike last season, when both teams were ranked in the top 10 statewide in Division IV and had 9-0 records, things have not gone smoothly for one team, but not for the other.
On the surface, it appears to have been a typical season for the Comets. Behind an 8-0 record, a 5-0 mark in the NBC, are ranked third in the Division IV, Region 14 computer poll and sixth statewide in the Associated Press poll.
Genoa has dominated behind a stout rushing attack led by senior running back Kyle Nutter, a defense that is allowing just 12 points per game, and record-setting kicker Cody Pickard.
Genoa first-year head coach and former assistant Tim Spiess admits it hasn't been as easy as it might appear.
For one, the Comets had to replace a number of key players from last season, among them Devin Sibby and Tyler Pickard, and have dealt with injuries to a number of key players, among them quarterback Logan Scott and two-way lineman Nick Harrick.
“When you combine (the injuries) with our small senior class, I could not be more proud of these guys,” Spiess said. “The seniors are high character kids. The kids understand that, if something happens to one of their brothers, someone else is going to step in. Some of the kids that we have that are hurt have become assistant coaches. Logan Scott has become basically our quarterback coach. He's helped (new quarterback) Kyle Edwards through the tough parts of the game.
“We've had more injuries this year than we've ever experienced during any season. We've had four season-ending knee injuries. We're missing starters at nine positions from what we anticipated in August. And I think one of the reasons we are as successful as we are is because I'm surrounded by successful coaches and we put our kids in good positions. We're testing the definition of team. We really are.”
Last year, Eastwood defeated Genoa, 25-23, rallying from a 10 point deficit midway through the fourth quarter as they claimed the inaugural NBC title before both teams advanced to the Division IV regional semifinals. Before that, the Comets had won the previous three meetings.
A win for Genoa would ensure their first NBC title and a win for the Eagles would give them their second straight league title and possible get them a spot in the playoffs.
“We tell our kids the playoffs start Week 10,” Spiess said. “We don't change for the big games and they don't change big games. If we do what we do, it doesn't matter. We have to control both lines of scrimmage, dictate tempo and want it a little more.”
Since starting the season 0-3, the Eagles have been on a tear, winning five straight games and outscoring their opponents 227-71. Save for a 14-7 victory over Rossford, Eastwood has dominated the competition, winning the other four games by at least 20 points.
The Eagles, who run the wing-T offense, have gotten solid contributions throughout the season from running backs Isaiah Conkle, Brent Schlumbohm, Skylar Dierker and Derek Snowden. Conkle and Schlumbohm have rushed for over 100 yards in multiple games while Dierker and Snowden have helped to complement the rushing attack.
When given the opportunity, quarterback Jake Schmeltz does his job connecting with receivers downfield, but it was an inexperienced line that led to early non-league losses. That line got a lesson in varsity football real quick.
Eastwood began the season with three of its toughest games, facing playoff-caliber teams in Patrick Henry, Clyde, and Oak Harbor and losing all three. They lost to the Patriots in convincing fashion, 40-28, in the season opener, fell short 28-23 in their clash with the Fliers, and led 14-0 and 21-14 before falling to the Rockets, 28-21.
Coach Jerry Rutherford says his team has shown improvement along the way. Since those early losses, the Eagles have won five consecutive games, highlighted by a 42-14 victory over Otsego, who, behind quarterback Ryan Smoyer, have proven to be one of the more talented teams in the NBC this season.
Currently, Eastwood finds itself ranked ninth in the Region 14 poll with 9.51 points, trailing eighth place Oak Harbor (11.24) for the final postseason slot. A win over Genoa could get Eastwood into the playoffs.
“Coach Rutherford is one of my best friends,” said Spiess. “He and I talked through August and early September (and) I knew they were starting a lot of young football players. I knew that once they started winning they would probably continue. Eastwood played Patrick Henry, Clyde and Oak Harbor — those are three pretty challenging games for any team that is trying to get some new starters in.”