The Wadsworth defense has developed a reputation for playmaking with 106 tackles for loss (36 sacks), 13 fumble recoveries and 24 interceptions. The Grizzlies also have held opponents to fewer than 10 points six times, including a 13-3 win over Dresden Tri-Valley last week.
Tonight will be the biggest challenge of the season — even that’s an understatement — when third-seeded Wadsworth (12-0) battles talent-laden No. 1 Massillon (12-0) for the Division II, Region 7 championship at North Canton Memorial Stadium.
“We have a lot of energy right now,” left tackle Mason Fortner said. “We’re just really excited with a lot of positive (vibes). We’re just trying to do as many right things as possible.
“(The postseason) has been a lot of fun. It keeps you confident and it keeps your spirits high. It keeps you working harder and harder with more motivation.”
The Tigers average 46.6 points — their season low is 24 against ancient rival Canton McKinley — and feature size, speed and power. Northeast Inland District Offensive Player of the Year Jamir Thomas (233 caries, 1,768 yards, 22 touchdowns), a 6-foot-1, 211-pounder who broke the 81-year-old school record for career rushing touchdowns, is only the start.
Left-handed Kent State baseball recruit Aidan Longwell (1,941 yards passing, 26 TDs, 8 interceptions) has been outstanding. Sophomore Jayden Ballard (26 catches, 660 yards, 11 TDs) already has scholarships from Ohio State and West Virginia on the table. Tre’Von Morgan (31, 548, 11), who stands 6-6, claims more than a dozen D-I offers, Aydrik Ford (32, 445, 6 in 7 games) excels in the quick passing game and backup running back Zion Phifer has 540 yards rushing and seven TDs.
That’s not all, as the offensive line stands 6-1, 6-1, 5-9, 6-2, 6-2 and weighs 261, 304, 242, 292 and 303. The Tigers also will use Brock Orr (5-7, 217) and Hunter Wantz (5-9, 270) as H-backs to get Thomas going.
Suffice it to say, containing the entire package will difficult.
“They’re good at every position, but what would you expect when you’re in the Elite Eight at the Division II level?” Wadsworth coach Justin Todd said. “They are as advertised. They’re very, very good, but I feel like we’re pretty good, too. We’re here for a reason.”
Wadsworth is coming off arguably its best defensive game of the season, forcing three turnovers and limiting Tri-Valley to 186 yards total offense. The Grizzlies got key production from unheralded linemen Jake LoGuidice and Cole Lamp and pitched a shutout after the Scotties’ opening drive.
Northeast Inland District co-Defensive Player of the Year Mason McMillen leads the charge with 139 tackles (22 for loss, 9 sacks). Fellow linebacker Jack Grice (104, 17ﾽ, 6ﾽ, 7 turnovers) and safeties Alec Miller (77, 3 interceptions) and Jake Herbert (44, 10) also have stood out.
“If our offense and defense play as good as we can, we should be able to win,” Grizzlies defensive lineman Nick Razek said. “(Massillon) has bigger kids, and there’s a lot of hype behind them. They have a lot of good players.”
The Massillon 3-4 defense has fewer stars but allows only 11.9 points per game with Thomas at linebacker. The secondary is the strong suit with Kent State recruit Dean Clark at safety and Max Turner (4 interceptions, 17 pass breakups) at corner, though the pass rush hasn’t been dominating with only 16 sacks.
Balance has been the calling card, as 12 players have at three tackles for loss, eight have an interception and four have at least 60 tackles. The Tigers don’t blitz as much as a traditional 3-4 team and instead prefer to clog passing lanes.
The Wadsworth offense is banged up at running back and on the line but still averages 38.6 points and 415.8 yards. Brock Snowball (175 carries, 1,116 yards, 11 TDs) and Dom Loparo (129, 1,075, 16) have combined for 2,191 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground, Trey Shaffer has 2,236 yards and 21 TDs through the air and receivers Barret Labus (28 catches, 434 yards, 5 TDs), Tyler Montgomery (30, 340, 5) and Jack Simmons (23, 268, 2) have stepped up recently.
The Grizzlies aren’t naïve. They know they’re the underdog.
That doesn’t mean they’re scared.
“A lot of teams get intimidated by the hype and stuff, but we’ll just try to block that out as much as possible,” Fortner said.
- Wadsworth's Mason McMillen to be preferred walk-on at Akron
- The Treymaker: Shaffer has blossomed into standout quarterback
- Jake LoGuidice's drive brings success to teammates, Wadsworth
- Wadsworth finds Gabel-bodied replacement on offensive line
- Wadsworth's Mason McMillen shares district defensive honors
- High school football playoffs: Wadsworth comes from behind to advance to regional championship
- Wadsworth one-ups tough Tri-Valley defense