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Southern and Eastern line up across from eachother during their game on Saturday
Southern and Eastern line up across from each other during their game in Week 10. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)

“This Game Is All We Need To Focus On Right Now.” Inside One Of Southeastern Ohio’s Biggest Rivalries

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Inside the coach’s office at Eastern High School, home of the Eagles, assistants sit on the couches that line the white concrete walls. After a Thursday practice, the room is buzzing with their idle chatter, and with an exceptional energy that comes around only once a year. Amidst the talk, one line rings out above the rest, a perfect summation of the reason behind that energy.

“This week, it doesn’t matter if we’re 0-9 or 9-0; we’ve got Southern.”

Coach Pat Newland and his staff have two more days until the big game. Both a playoff appearance and a town’s pride would be on the line.

Coach Pat Newland looks on during his Eastern Eagles' game against the Southern Tornadoes. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)

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Southern High School, in Racine, tucked just above the Ohio River, and Eastern High School, in Reedsville, right off State Route 7, are rivals in the truest sense of the word. A less than 20 minute car ride separates the two schools, which have traditionally battled in the last week of the regular season, home field alternating between them each year.

That distance, or lack thereof, is unquestionably a factor into the feud between them. After all, there is no rival quite like the one right in your backyard.

“Truthfully, it’s such a proximity thing, and it’s been like that for ages.” Southern Tornadoes head coach Cassidy Willford said after his team’s practice on the Wednesday before the game. “And for me, I’ve only been here for two years, so this is my second year here as head coach, and I’m really just getting into the ins and outs of the rivalry.”

“And it’s in every sport too, it’s not just football, it’s basketball, baseball, volleyball. It’s just that we’re so close, we’re in the same conference, same division, everything is always against each other.”

Willford has indeed only been apart of the rivalry for two years, but even after one clash against the Eagles last season, he had reason for animosity.

Going into the game, Southern’s record stood at 5-4, while Eastern’s stood at 7-2, with playoffs on the brain. But the year prior, the script had been flipped, with Willford’s Tornadoes being the team with playoff aspirations going into the final week.

“Well they played spoiler for us last year; we were on the cusp, if we beat Eastern we were in [the playoffs] last year,” Willford said. “And ya know, I would love more than anything in the world to return the favor to Coach Newland and the Eagles. But it’s a game, and we’ve gotta play for four quarters.”

“That would make this rivalry even better, because lately it always seems to come down to that. When somebody’s looking to be in the playoffs, win, you’re in, lose, you’re out, and the other team can spoil it.”

The Eagles did indeed spoil Southern’s playoff push in their previous meeting, as Eastern won that contest 27-26 thanks to a Steve Fitzgerald touchdown run and Mollie Maxon extra point with only 27 seconds left.

And coach Willford was far from the only one with revenge on his mind.

Running back Trey McNickle and Quarterback Gage Shuler, both seniors for the Tornadoes, remember last year’s heartbreak all too well.

“They spoiled our hopes and dreams last year, kicking us out of the playoffs, so we plan on doing the same exact thing to them.” McNickle said after that Wednesday’s practice.

Payback was a sentiment that Shuler shared with his teammate.

“Oh ya, we’ve got a lot of revenge that we’ve got to pay back after what they did to us last year. We’ve got to try to give it back to them this year.”

If the rivalry hadn’t been personal before, it was now.

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The entire week had been cold and wet. The rain had been unabating as both teams tried to prepare for not only the opposing team, but the difficult playing conditions.

“With it raining so much, we’re preparing for it to be a really wet game. We’re just grinding hard, focusing on stopping the run.” Shuler said, after a waterlogged practice the week of the game.

For Pat Newland and his Eastern Eagles, though, the challenges extended beyond game day on Saturday.

Most of the area outside their high school was flooded.

During their Thursday practice, they would have to practice in the driest spot they could find; the outfield of the high school’s baseball field.

And to say that the outfield was ‘dry’ would only be relative to everything else.

Eastern’s players sloshed around left field, running 7-on-7 drills, some players behind the action pulling their arms inside their practice jerseys to try and stay warm.

On the walk towards the field, plastic cups had been jammed inside a chain link fence, made to spell out the words “BEAT TORNADOES,” water pooling in the cups that had the misfortune of leaning upwards. As practice winds down, a thunderous crack rings out from the woods behind the field. A tree had fallen over.

Classic southeastern Ohio weather to go with a classic southeastern Ohio rivalry.

Southern practices on Wednesday before their Saturday game against Eastern. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)
Eastern practices on Thursday before their Saturday game against Southern. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)
Southern practices on Wednesday before their Saturday game against Eastern. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)
Eastern practices on Thursday before their Saturday game against Southern. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)

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The Eagles may have been wet, but it did little to dampen their spirits.

After practice ends, the team remains on the muddy outfield a while longer, to play a game where an underclassman picks a senior to hold a tackle dummy, which the underclassman then runs full speed into. The exercise typically ends with both players sprawled out in the mud, grins on their faces as the rest of the team cheers on the hit. It is half-drill, half-team-building, and 100% indicative of the camaraderie Newland has built with his team.

“These are just a great bunch of kids to be around” he said after the Thursday practice.

He has other things on his mind though. Namely the biggest game in the recent history of his school. As important as a potential playoff berth is for any team, it would hold even more significance for the Eagles.

Eastern had not been to the postseason in 18 years, tied for the longest playoff drought in the state.

“All the records, everything goes out the window. It’s a cliche, but football is full of cliches, and they’re all true.” Newland said. “This is a special, special night. It’s on Saturday, we’re maybe the only game that’s played on Saturday in the area this week. There’s gonna be a bunch of people there, it’s just a great thing, a great game to be part of.”

“Obviously [playoffs] are in everybody’s mind, but we shut it down at the beginning of the week, we just told everybody ‘You are not allowed to talk about anything except for the Southern game.’ So nobody’s mentioned it, we are focused on the game on Saturday night.”

To hear Eastern’s junior tailback, and coach Newland’s son, Blake Newland talk about it, the message got through.

“Really big game for us, but it’s the same thing as all the other games: we want to win.” He said.

“Really important. This game is all we need to focus on right now.”

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Eastern’s Steve Fitzgerald and Southern’s Gage Shuler were both key cogs for their teams in years past, including their match up last year, and their responsibilities for their respective teams has grown as they’ve gotten older and taken on leadership roles. Shuler underwent a position change over the summer, switching from receiver to quarterback in his senior season. Fitzgerald is the thunder to Blake Newland’s lighting in a fearsome Eagles backfield combination.

Additionally, they both play on the defensive side of the ball, and they’d been spending their week trying to devise ways to utterly neutralize each other.

They’re also cousins.

“We have a pretty big rivalry every year, but I don’t…” Shuler said, gathering his thoughts, a chuckle escaping him. “My cousin [Fitzgerald] is on the team, so we better win or there’s gonna be some long car rides, some long talks.”

Long talks indeed. It seemed the familial trash talk had already begun.

“He [Shuler] has been talking all year about how they’re gonna beat us,” Fitzgerald said. “And I just let it go, because we’ll see when it comes time to play the game.”

That is the nature of these cross-town rivalries. Community members from both sides may see each other at the grocery store, at church, and certainly at the yearly rivalry game.

“We’re just so close together, it’s kind of like you’re playing your brother in pick-up basketball,” Coach Newland said from outside his office the Thursday before the game. “The person you want to beat the most is the person you know, and just the proximity of the schools, we’re both the same size, that’s just kind of what it is; we see each other on the weekends.”

“Coach Willford’s done a great job down there. It’s been a very clean, hard-hitting game. We just do our talking and afterwards, off the field, ya know, all these kids know each other.”

Some know each other, and in the case of this rivalry, some will share the same table during a family Thanksgiving dinner.

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After a rainy week of practice, Saturday does come. As kickoff approaches, the crowd expectedly grows. Southern is hosting the game this year, but the game has drawn fanfare from across Meigs County. Jeremy Hill, the Meigs Marauders head basketball coach and former coach for Eastern’s basketball team, is seen at the game. So is his star guard Weston Baer. Before long, Roger Lee Adams Memorial Football Field is relegated to standing-room only, the bleachers at maximum capacity.

Looking at the past nine match ups, Southern had the head-to-head edge, 5-4, but Eastern had the most recent victory in the rivalry, and the better record leading into Saturday.

The Eagles received the kickoff, and Fitzgerald started things off with a 6-yard run on a pitch to the strong side. Blake Newland followed that up with a 55-yard blast up the middle, getting in for a touchdown and quickly putting Eastern up 7-0 over the Tornadoes.

Four minutes later, he would get into the end zone again. 14-0 Eastern.

Southern seemed rattled. Eastern records early sacks and interceptions.

And some bad blood shows its head when an Eastern player flings Southern receiver Chase Bailey into the Tornadoes’ bench after Bailey had made a reception and been tackled on the sideline.

Boos rain down from the Southern supporters. But the game wears on, and Fitzgerald finds his way into the end zone from 5-yards out. 21-0 Eastern.

The eagerly-anticipated game is over at halftime. The Eagles would not be denied, as they punched their ticket into the playoffs with a 63-6 victory.

Eastern made history, and snapped their 18-year postseason-less dry spell as they finished the year 8-2. For Southern, the loss moved them to .500.

And another chapter in their rivalry was in the books.

Nick Little holds a block during Easterns game against the Southern Tornadoes. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)
Blake Newland runs towards the play during Easterns game against the Southern Tornadoes. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)
Steve Fitzgerald runs to the outside during Easterns game against the Southern Tornadoes. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)
Southern players kneel during an injury timeout in their Saturday game against Eastern. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)
Mason Dishong looks on during the Eagles' game against the Southern Tornadoes. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)
Gage Shuler enters the huddle during Southerns game against the Eastern Eagles. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)

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After the game, some pageantry was in order.

Over the years, the rivalry between Southern and Eastern had seen it all. Playoff spoilers. On-field skirmishes. Overtime thrillers. What it did not have, was a name.

That was corrected in a ceremony after Saturday’s contest.

The two schools voted on a slogan, and the “Rivalry on the River” was born, with a trophy to boot. Eastern will hold the bragging rights and the hardware the rest of this season, with both up for grabs again next year.

“Congrats to Eastern and their staff, their kids played lights out and really wanted it more. I thought we did some things decent but we need to get better,” Willford said via text days after the game. “Looking back at the season we see our weaknesses and will address those in the off season and move our program in the right direction. Sad to see this season over, had a great group of seniors but they left us in a good position to build and keep moving forward.”

Moving forward, and looking onward towards the next meeting between Southern and Eastern. The newly anointed “Rivalry on the River.” Need a story line for next season’s game in Reedsville? Now the two schools are in gridlock in their head-to-head record over their last ten meetings, five apiece.

Next season, the start of the next decade, and the breaking of that gridlock.

One thing is for sure, no matter the records, no matter the context, when the final week of the season comes around again, all eyes will be on their game.

It’s only tradition.