GLOUSTER — The Tomcats were robbed, via OHSAA rules and regulations, of a chance to defend their Division VII, Region 27 crown.
But fresh off the best regular-season in school history, Trimble still has the chance to make more history.
The Tomcats (10-0) open the 2019 OHSAA High School Football Playoffs on Friday night with a 7 p.m. start against Salinesville Southern (10-0). The game is a quarterfinal matchup in Division VI, Region 21, and provides the only matchup in the entire state this weekend of 10-0 teams.
All told, 26 10-0 teams made the OHSAA playoffs. Four happen to be in Trimble’s newly assigned region.
“Moving up this year, we figured we’d get a lot harder game in the first round,” said Trimble head coach Phil Faires. “And sure enough we get to face a 10-0 team right off.
“But (Southern) has to face a 10-0 team too,” he added. “I’m just glad we’re on the right side, for us, of the bus trip.”
Because of ‘competitive balance’ measures instituted by the OHSAA, Trimble was moved up from Division VII to Division VI for 2019. It means instead of potential rematches with teams like Harvest Prep, Lancaster Fisher Catholic, or TVC rivals like Eastern and/or Waterford, Trimble will instead have to navigate a whole new region in postseason play.
And the Tomcats are in one of the hardest in the state. Trimble finished fourth in the region’s computer points standings despite the perfect regular season, and Southern — again perfect in the regular-season — will have to make the long road trip on Friday as the No. 5 seed.
Southern is located in southwestern Columbiana County, north of Steubenville and east of Canton. It’s nestled close to the Pennsylvania border, and the distance between the two schools is roughly 140 miles. The Indians are expected to travel by charter bus, but even still are looking at three hours minimum to get to Glouster.
“It’s the one good thing about it,” Faires said.
Southern and Trimble are just two of the 10-0 teams in Region 21. Third-seed Fort Frye (10-0) will host No. 6 Dalton (9-1), and top seed New Middletown Springfield (10-0) will take on No. 8 Berlin Center Western Reserve (8-2).
Springfield was ranked No. 2 in the state in all Division VI by the last AP Statewide poll this week. Trimble checked in at No. 3, Fort Frye was fourth and Mogadore (9-1) — No. 3 in region 21 — was seventh in the state.
Trimble’s quest for another trip to the state championship will begin with the toughest regional it’s seen yet in postseason play. The Tomcats have never won a playoff game played outside the smallest division created by the OHSAA.
“The playoff path is what it is,” Faires said. “We’re ready to see how we stack up.”
Scouting the Indians
Southern, in many ways, had a regular-season nearly as dominating as the Tomcats. The Indians rolled to 10-0 — with just one game decided by less than 17 points — and averaged 45.4 points per game.
Southern gave up just 83 points all season, and over the last five games outscored the opposition a combined 281-13.
Trimble, buoyed by an incredible defense, posted a 448-6 scoring margin over the season. The Tomcats averaged 49.8 points per game — one game was a no-contest forfeit — and over the last four played games Trimble posted a 240-0 scoring edge.
Southern, the champions of the Eastern Ohio Athletic Conference, has seen blowout after blowout on its way to 13 straight regular-season wins and 20 of its last 21 overall. The Tomcats have won 15 straight regular-season games and 27 of the last 30.
“They’re like us in a lot of ways,” Faires said. “Like punting, I think we’ve punted like three times all year. We’ve only seen one punt for them on film.”
Southern will have the offensive tools in place in challenge Trimble’s ferocious defense. It starts with senior quarterback Jayce Sloan, who can run (more than 300 yards rushing and 6 TDs) and has a school-record 33 touchdown passes. Sloan threw for nearly 1,000 yards and 15 TDs this season.
And the Indians have a game-breaker on the outside in senior Cam Grodhaus (6-1, 195 pounds). With more than 800 yards of offense this season, and more than 15 total touchdowns, Grodhaus will get the ball in a lot of different ways and is a threat to dent the scoreboard every time he touches it.
“He’s tough now,” Faires said. “I think he was all-state last year.
“He’s like their Austin Downs,” Faires said, referring to Trimble’s all-time great wideout and current athletic director. “It’s hard to stick to just running the ball when you got him out there.”
But the Indians can run it too. Senior Dylan Milhoan had more than 800 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, and another senior — Mark Soukup — combined for 10 touchdowns (rushing and receiving) with just over 30 touches during the season.
Trimble’s defense — led by LB Sawyer Koons (92 tackles, 12 TFL) and DE Ian Joyce (78 tackles, 21 sacks) — will have its hands full.
On the flipside, Trimble has had success all season with its own offensive line — which has five senior starters. But they’ll be working against a defense that can stock a trio of 300-pounders on the defensive line.
Senior RB Conner Wright (1,503 yards, 30 total TDs) has powered through every defense so far this season, but hasn’t faced a front this big before. Senior QB Cameron Kittle (748 rushing yards, 10 TDs, 855 passing yards and 11 TD passes) will be needed to provide the counter punch, and perhaps the threat of big plays over the top.
“We’ve just got to play our game,” Faires said.
The winning edge?
Trimble has 17 postseason wins, with the lion’s share coming since 2013. Southern has yet to win a postseason game.
That experience, and the home field advantage — Trimble’s grass field is an anomaly even in the high school ranks nowadays — could be the tipping point in what is expected to be a close game.
“They’ll be sky high and really wanting to get that first win, and take us down too,” Faires said. “But we’ve been in these kinds of game. And I think that experience of last year should help us.
“But that edge goes away after a while, after a quarter or so,” he continued. “If they gain confidence early, it’ll be a dog fight.”
Trimble hasn’t been behind on the scoreboard all season. Is Faires worried about how his group might react when adversity hits?
“These guys have worked so hard and done so much really since last season ended,” Faires said. “We know we’re playing a great team.
“But I’m not worried about that. These guys will play hard and fight no matter what,” he said. “If we play our typical game, I like our chances.”