Ironton is still grinding its Tiger teeth over the way last season ended.
The Fighting Tigers fell out of contention for the Ohio Valley Conference championship with lost double-digit leads against Gallia Academy and Portsmouth to close the regular season.
The frustration was only compounded by a 15-7 defeat to Division V, Region 19 top seed Johnstown-Monroe in their first-round playoff matchup.
Ironton had the ball facing third-and-goal at the Johnnies’ 1-yard line with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, but turned it over on a fumbled snap.
The Tigers got the ball back with 1:21 remaining and advanced as far as the J-M 26 before being turned away.
Quarterback Gage Salyers explained the key miscue as a miscommunication between himself and center Rocky White.
“We’re all looking forward to making up for it this year,” Salyers said with determination during the team’s media day at Tanks Memorial Stadium.
J-M went on to finish state runner-up, but enough about the past. Ironton has designs on making a run of its own to the final in 2019 behind Youngstown State commit Salyers and highly sought-after junior Reid Carrico.
There’s an added buzz around Tigertown, where tradition fuels high expectations.
“This year, they’re really high,” Salyers said. “We’re senior-heavy.”
At the center of the excitement is No. 28, a running back/linebacker who already has offers from several of college football’s elite programs.
Carrico, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder, rushed for 1,376 yards as a sophomore and led the team with 15 touchdowns. He’s valued just as much on the defensive side.
Ironton, 6-5 last season, will look to attain high-level goals by building off expectations from within.
“Our expectations as a team are always the same,” second-year coach Trevon Pendleton said. “We are going to compete. Nobody is going to outwork us. Another thing is building a strong team bond, unity.”
The Tigers hit the ground running this year after a season of learning the ropes in Pendleton’s system.
“We’re way ahead of where we were last year,” he said during the team’s media day. “The first year, there were a lot of ups and downs. The second year, kids understand the expectations. Everything transitions a little smoother.”
Pendleton is excited about Ironton’s depth on a 66-player roster, its largest in a while.
“There’s depth all around,” the coach said. “A lot of guys are itching to get on the field.”
Four transfers — three from across the river — are expected to make significant contributions. The group includes Junior Jones (Ashland), Noah Davidson (Raceland), Beau Brownstead (Raceland) and Kyle Howell (Portsmouth West). Howell, a junior, is the only non-senior of the bunch.
Ironton returns a veteran backfield with All-Ohio special mention honorees Salyers, Carrico and fullback Seth Fosson. Salyers passed for nearly 1,000 yards and rushed for more than 500. Fosson, a third-year starter, ran for 482 yards with 11 TDs as a junior.
Behind them, Pendleton mentioned Cameron Deere, Brownstead, Jones and Dalton Crabtree at running back.
Several players likely will rotate on an offensive line hoping to get White back healthy from an injury.
“He understands the offense and makes all the right calls,” Pendleton said.
Senior Caden McFann has experience playing all three positions up front and sophomore Riley Boggs is another returning starter. Davidson, Hunter Eaches, Ryan Cecil, Nate Cochran, Chase Stevens, Lucas White and Nolan Schreck are in the mix.
“We didn’t have a set line through camp one day,” Pendleton said.
At tight end, senior Bryce Munion, Brownstead and sophomore Ashton Duncan are top candidates. Last year, Duncan’s brother Ethan started there as a senior and was an All-Ohio first-team linebacker.
“Ashton has shown quite a bit,” Pendleton said. “He’s a bigger-body kid (6-2, 205) and athletic.”
Senior Jordan Grizzle is a returning starter at wideout. Howell also entered the picture with starting experience as part of a group including Colin Freeman and Trent Hacker.
Defensively, Cochran (6-2, 250) is a sophomore who brings strength and athletic ability to the front line, according to Ironton’s coach. Cecil and Lucas White provide inside support.
Manning the defensive ends will be Fosson, Gunner Crawford and Jones, with Crawford also bouncing to linebacker.
“Junior Jones has been a good player in the area for a while,” Pendleton said. ”He’s become a part of this family. He’s doing a great job.”
Jones grew up in Ohio and played briefly at South Point as a freshman. He spent the next two years as a key member of Ashland’s defense before being sidelined by injury.
In between two shoulder surgeries, Jones tragically lost his father — Joshua Jones, Sr. — in January. Junior’s back in his home state full-time, hoping to finish his high school career on a high note.
“I’m just trying to do the best I can,” Jones said. “It’s been hard with my dad passing, very rough. He always pushed me. His biggest goal for me was to make something of myself.”
Jones said he’s thankful for his time in Ashland and playing for the Tomcats.
“Those two years were good for me,” he said. “It taught me about who I am and what I can do. There are a lot of good people over there.”
Now Jones will be seeing the Ashland-Ironton rivalry from the other side.
“It was kind of tough to think about at first,” he said. “That’s always a big game.”
Jones said his shoulders have healed well. He’s happy to be wearing an Ironton jersey — No. 2.
“My background is in Ohio; it’s very special,” Jones said. “I’m trying to focus on us getting to the state championship.”
The second level of Ironton’s defense has Carrico shifting from outside linebacker to the inside. Joining him will be Dylan Carpenter, Brownstead or Crawford. On the outside, it’s a combination of Deere, Crabtree, Duncan and Minion.
There’s plenty of experience in the secondary with Salyers, Grizzle, Freeman and Kameron Browning.
Ironton even broke camp with depth at kicker with three candidates — Michael Mahlmeister, Izsac Unger and Avery Book.
“We had two guys last night make one from 47 yards,” Pendleton said on Aug. 7.
While the Tigers rate as a strong contender for the OVC title, nobody is taking anything for granted.
“There’s becoming more parity around the area,” Pendleton said. “More teams are capable of knocking you off any night.”
He said the first few weeks of the new season will be crucial for the Tigers, who open at home against nemesis Wheelersburg.
“It’s going to be how fast we start and how much energy,” said Pendleton, who expects Ironton to play with an intensity that’s “almost reckless, but under control.”