Ironton didn’t see rivals Wheelersburg, Ashland or Russell on its early-season slate this year.
What it is encountering is a six-game sprint against Ohio Valley Conference opponents in pursuit of its 36th playoff berth in school history.
Coach Trevon Pendleton said the path may be altered, but the mission and mindset of the Fighting Tigers always remain the same.
“It doesn’t matter how many they put in front of us,” Pendleton said. “It doesn’t matter how many games we are going to get. The mindset is to go out and take care of them one game at a time, win them all and keep advancing.
“Obviously, this season has been different,” he added. “The goals have stayed the same in regard to that and the way the kids have shown up with the attitude and the effort that they have been giving. We just keep moving forward.”
Ironton accumulated 13 wins last season and broke a streak of 20 straight seasons without the Tigers in a state championship game. They ultimately fell to undefeated Kirtland in Canton in the state final last December.
The third-year coach continues to see growth in the program.
“You must have belief in the system, belief in the team, belief in each other and belief in yourself,” Pendleton said. “The kids show up every day and work hard. You approach every day with an attack mentality instead of a survive mentality. You do that every day and good things are going to happen. I think it’s definitely starting to show.”
Senior Reid Carrico believes the Tigers’ renewed success in 2019 was spurred by a narrow loss to Division V, Region 19 top seed Johnstown-Monroe during the postseason the year before. The experience left a lasting impression on the team.
“We had a lot of returners in my junior year,” Carrico said. “My sophomore year we almost knocked off the AP No. 1 team in the state in the first round of the playoffs. We were a huge underdog. It leaves that thought in your mind through the whole offseason, ‘Man, we should have beat them. We have to get back.’
“Last year was a redemption year and it got us back on track to where we are supposed to be.”
The Ohio State commit and reigning Ohio Division V Defensive Player of the Year rushed for 1,634 yards last season and recorded 168 tackles and three sacks. He tallied 30 total touchdowns, two coming on defense.
Pendleton believes his team will feature plenty of depth again this season. He said there have been plenty of position battles during preseason workouts. The coach mentioned a trio of candidates to fill the quarterback spot after the graduation of Gage Salyers.
Senior Will York has overcome injuries and competes every rep. Sophomore Tayden Carpenter understands the offense well. Aaron Masters, a transfer from Wheelersburg, is capable of playing that position, according to his coach.
He also included several playmakers and key contributors from 2019 that will see major minutes on the offensive side of the football. The Tigers averaged 36.6 points a contest last year.
Trevor Carter is a versatile sophomore that can play multiple spots on the field. Ashton Duncan, Gunner Crawford, Dalton Crabtree and Cameron Deere can be effective toting the ball out of the backfield.
Whomever is under center will have several athletic wideouts to choose from. Seniors Kyle Howell and Trent Hacker bring plenty of talent and experience. Erickson Barnes has breakaway speed. Lincoln Barnes and Mississippi transfer Angelo Washington will catch balls from the tight end position.
The bulk of Ironton’s offensive line returns this season. Senior Rocky White has played plenty of football at center and senior Matt Davis is a multi-year starter at guard. He will be joined by fellow senior Owen Ison. Nate Cochran plays on the offensive and defensive line. Riley Boggs will suit up at tackle.
Pendleton said Rylan Cecil, C.J. McCall, Evan Wilds and Blake Murrell stepped up their games in the offseason.
“It’s probably our deepest team that we’ve had,” Pendleton said. “We’re having a lot of position battles. We are replacing a lot of very talented guys and a lot of seniors that played a lot of football around here. We have the talent now they have to step up and do it.”
“We are evaluating daily,” he added. “We are sitting down as a staff every week talking about it and making adjustments to our depth chart.”
Most of the defense remains intact from last season. Carrico will lead the unit from his middle linebacker position. He will be joined by Deere. Both have become staples in the linebacker corps. Crabtree is a third-year starter at outside linebacker. Barnes, Jacob Sloan and Carter are multiple players that can fill the other outside spot. Several of the receivers and offensive weapons will also see time at defensive back.
“Our defense is two-, three-deep at every spot,” Carrico said. “It’s the first time that we have had 70 kids out for the football program in a long, long time. That is huge. … We’ve got a lot of returning guys and a lot of good players. You shouldn’t think that last year we were good because we had a lot of seniors. There are a lot of seniors on the team this year. We will see how it all comes together.”
Ironton’s short season began at Portsmouth on Aug. 28. Pendleton believes extended practice time and the experience gained during their march to last year’s state final will help produce a repeat performance in 2020.
“Any time you go into Week 15, you get five extra weeks of practice,” Pendleton said. “You see a lot of growth in your young guys. They start to mature, and they start to understand a lot more. Experience never hurts.”