Heading into the season, their stories were nearly identical.
A stable of seniors gone, a virtual overhaul of starters and the same grinder of a schedule lying ahead were preseason plot points.
A few weeks later, Ashland and Ironton are bookmarked on the same page as they set for a clash at Putnam Stadium on Friday night at 7:30.
The common denominators: two wins apiece, standout defensive efforts in the rear-view mirror and plenty of new players factoring into their improvement.
“We’re in a similar boat,” said Ironton coach Mark Vass. “The programs lost a lot, but there are new players in and both teams have talent.”
A good portion of that talent has surfaced on the defensive side. Both Ironton and Ashland won low-scoring affairs last Friday — Ironton beat Amanda-Clearcreek 14-7; Ashland downed Russell, 7-6.
The Tomcats limited Russell to just 3.5 yards per carry, pleasing defensive-minded coach Tony Love.
“My hope is that our kids are starting to get a feel for defense and how we’re supposed to be playing,” Love said.
The one-point victory marked the second such win this season, as Ashland’s first win was a 35-34 decision over Raceland.
“As a defensive guy, I think I’d rather have the 7-6,” said Love with a laugh. “(Former Ashland coach) Leon Hart told me, ‘Make sure you appreciate every win you get.’”
As the page turns to another rivalry game, Love isn’t quite sure what to expect.
“I don’t know if it’ll come down to a defensive battle, but it could,” Love said. “Ironton’s always so good at running the ball. You just have to commit so many guys to stopping their run, and even when you do that, they’re very patient. They keep pounding it and they produce.”
Pounding and production were on full display in Ironton’s most recent triumph. The Fighting Tigers overcame a 7-0 halftime deficit with the huge help of a 19-play, 97-yard touchdown drive that dropped 8:33 off the clock in the third quarter.
Four plays after that, a blocked punt set up a go-ahead TD in the fourth.
“Our kids responded well in the second half,” Vass said. “Our line did a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage. We grinded it out, it wasn’t easy yardage.”
Ironton’s offensive line is anchored by sizable senior Adam Webb (6-foot-6, 315 pounds) and junior Isaac Sherman (6-5, 290).
Fullback Desmond Young led Ironton with 71 yards on 20 carries. Quarterback Tristan Cox provided the scores.
Cox supplied the turning point in Ironton’s 35-14 win over Russell on Friday, Sept. 6, with a 60-yard interception return.
According to Vass, a collective effort across the board has helped them wipe a lopsided season-opening loss to Wheelersburg from their memory banks.
“The No. 1 thing has been attitude,” Vass said. “These kids work hard and want to be good. It’s a good, coachable group.”
Spelling potential bad news for Ashland are Ironton’s defensive numbers spanning the past two games. It’s allowed just 210 yards in that stint.
The Tomcats (2-2) are suffering from a slight offensive slump, scoring just seven points over the past six quarters.
Sophomore running back Quinton Baker averages 8.6 yards per rush. Quarterback Hunter Prince has 216 rushing yards — 141 of those came against Raceland.
“Baker is a gifted kid,” Vass said. “He’s one of the better running backs we’ll see all year, but he’s not the only one they’ve got.”
Baker scared the daylights out of Love this past Friday. A hard hit sidelined the playmaker for a short time.
“He took a shot over there,” Love recalled. “I was really concerned — I just happened to be standing right where it happened — and I thought, oh my goodness, this is not good. But things weren’t as bad as they appeared ...
“... We put him back in there and saw him glide and burst.”
Senior James Queen is back to full health after a concussion. Sophomore linebacker Drew O’Bryan returned for the Russell game after missing time with a leg injury.
“He looked like he was full speed out there,” Love commented on O’Bryan. “He made some big plays, but there were a lot of guys around him that enabled him to do that.”
Ironton won the meeting last season, but Ashland has taken two in a row at Putnam Stadium.
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