Athens Looks To Break New Ground In Regional Final

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In 2012, both the Athens Bulldogs and the Marion-Franklin Red Devils lost in their respective regional final, falling just one win shy of reaching the state final four.

Marion-Franklin missed out on a chance to make the state semifinals for the third time in four seasons. Athens, meanwhile, has never been to the final four since the playoffs changed to their current format in 1972.

But each of these highly talented squads was able to circle the wagons and do it again in 2013, riding combined records of 23-1 back to the regional final. And due to the region realignment, the No. 1 Bulldogs (12-0) and No. 2 Red Devils (11-1) will meet each other with another trip to the final four on the line.

This time, something’s gotta give.

“For the guys that were here last year that were part of that run, it’s an extra hurdle we’d like to get over,” Athens coach Ryan Adams said. “We’re tickled to death to be here…and we want to do something that we’ve never done before in our history.”

But if the Bulldogs want to make history, they’re going to have to play one of the best games in the history of Athens football, because their opponent is really good.

Columbus-based Marion-Franklin is riding a nine-game win streak, and the Red Devils finished the year with a 4-0 record against teams in Division I and Division II.

While Marion-Franklin may not post the same astronomical point totals as Athens, the Red Devils still averaged a more-than-respectable 33 points per game. Dual-threat quarterback Justin Tyler leads the offense and has a slew of speedy running backs to compliment his ground game.

“[Tyler] is going to be the fastest guy on the field, in my estimation,” Adams said. “He’s always a threat to put six on the board at any time.

“We have to be careful we don’t get too aggressive and run past the guy,” Adams continued. “Because he has enough speed to separate himself from the pack.”

While watching film of Marion-Franklin, Athens’ coach has also been impressed by the Red Devils’ offensive line.

“That group is as big a group of boys as I’ve ever seen on a high school field,” Adams said. “We’re not just going to be able to push through them.”

Adams said that there was also a significant size disparity on the other side of the trenches.

“There is a big size difference and a lot of people have criticized our offensive line all season,” Adams said. “But four of the five of them are first-time varsity starters and they are a big part of an offense that has scored 700 points this season. I believe we are only the sixth team in Ohio history to do that.

“They’ve done their part all season. The [offensive] line will be ready for Friday.”

The Bulldogs’ offensive line has indeed been a part of one of the best seasons in Athens history, but they are going to have to protect Joe Burrow from one of the most ferocious defenses in the state if they hope to play again next week.

Marion-Franklin’s defense has been as good as Athens offense has been this year.  The Red Devil’s “D” only allowed 20 or more points in one game this season, in their lone loss against Bishop Hartley in Week 3. 

That loss came the week after Marion-Franklin’s top running back and defensive back, Alijahwon Tarvin, was lost for the season due to a leg injury.

But the defense recovered from the loss, holding opponents to an average of just under 12 points per game.

Adams knows that the Bulldogs are going to have to play their best in every phase of the game if they hope to get the “W”.

“We have to win the special teams battle first and foremost, and we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” Adams said. “We can’t take any bad penalties and we’ll have to win the turnover battle.”

“Joe [Burrow] is going to have to mix it up again this week and utilize all of his weapons,” he continued. “As far as the defense goes, we’re going to have to get a few stops to be in the hunt. But if our offense can continue to execute, it will lead to success.”

Regardless of the outcome of the game, Athens has put together another memorable season for high school football fans in southeast Ohio.

“We are here in rural Ohio and we don’t have the same numbers to draw from as the upper-echelon schools that the best athletes flock to,” Adams said. “Here, we are left with the talent that’s given by the parents and that makes it even more special. It really speaks volumes of the dedication and commitment of our players and coaches.

“It’s not a common thing,” he continued, “and that makes it an even greater accomplishment.”

Athens and Marion-Franklin will kick off Friday, Nov. 22 at 7:30 p.m. from Logan Chieftain Stadium.