BERLIN CENTER - With the 2011 Division VI Associated Press Poll Championship in its pocket, Western Reserve will take the first step towards the OHSAA title Saturday when the undefeated Blue Devils host to the Villa Angela-St. Joseph Vikings.
The Blue Devils received 19 first-place votes and 243 to finish the year on top of the final press poll and win their first Associated Press Poll in school history. Second-place Ledgemont received four first-place votes and 204 points. The Press Poll is voted on weekly by members of various media outlets through out the state of Ohio.
"That was pretty cool," Western Reserve coach Andy Hake said of the AP title. " I was pretty happy for the kids. There are a lot of great teams in Division VI and we were lucky they picked us. Our kids are No.1 in the state right now and that's great, but we see it for what is and that's recognition. It's a sign of recognition and respect. Like I said, there are a lot of great teams in the state with St. Delphos, Mogadore and Marion Local. Any one of those teams can beat us and we can beat any one of those teams."
The Blue Devils clinched the AP championship with a 35-0 win over rival McDonald. The win over the McDonald was the first for Western Reserve in the last 21 years and 23 meetings between the two programs. Last season, Western Reserve fell to McDonald twice, dropping a 15-13 decision in Week 9 and a 13-7 final in the first-round of the playoffs. Last week's win snapped that streak, gave Western Reserve the top spot in Region 23 and kept the Blue Devils undefeated. Western Reserve's nine previous wins came over Mathews (52-19), Independence (26-14), East Palestine (28-6), Leetonia (48-28), Lowellville (46-6), Sebring (39-16), Southern (48-3), Wellsville (49-7) and Jackson-Milton (52-7). The Blue Devils have outscored their first 10 opponents, 423-116.
Now the Blue Devils are preparing for their 11th foe and things don't get any easier with VASJ.
"They (VASJ) are very athletic and have a lot of skilled guys," Hake said. "They have a great running back in Timothy Harrison. He's a great player. They also have a great receiver in C.J. Jeremy. Plus they have about 18 or 19 seniors and they're fast. They're very fast. They are without doubt the fastest team we've played all year."
The Cleveland-based Vikings can put up points. VASJ has scored over 40 four times this season, including a 55-6 win over Garfield Heights Trinity and a 61-13 rout of Gilmour Academy last week. Harrison has carried the ball 163 times for 1,389 yards. He also has 16 TDs and has shown big-play potential with an 80-yard gain. Jeremy has 20 catches for over 400 yards.
"They can run and they can pass, but they run far better than they pass," Hake added.
The Blue Devils too can do both. They have rushed for 2,858 yards and have added another 1,580 in the air for 4,438 total yards of offense. On the ground, senior Don Bolton has leads with 1,921 on 162 attempts. He has scored 11 touchdowns and has averaged 11.9 per carry. Junior Tim Copper has ran for an additional 286 on just 25 carries for a 13.3 average and seven additional scores. The aerial attack had been all Jeff Clegg. The senior quarterback is 95-of-153 for 1,389 yards, 24 touchdowns and a 62.1 completion percentage. Senior Tom Benyo has 28 receptions for 537 yards and 11 scores. Junior Tim Cooper has 33 for 442 and seven TDs.
Clearly, the Blue Devils can move the football but when it comes to winning on Saturday, the main thing Western Reserve needs to throw around is its weight.
"We have to get physical," Hake said. "We have to out hit them and play physical. We're pretty strong and hopefully we can neutralize their speed with our strength. If we can do that and not turn the ball over, I think we'll be alright. Don't get me wrong. They're a very good football team. They play a tough a schedule and face some good teams like Holy Name, the University School and Bishop Hartley."
The Vikings' schedule is so tough in fact that a 6-4 mark was enough to push them into the playoffs. VASJ beat out perennial playoff team Strasburg for the eight and final spot in Region 23. Aside from Trinity and Gilmour Academy, the Vikings have also defeated Tuscarawas Central Catholic (47-36), Warren JFK (14-6) and St. Peters Chanel (28-13). St. Joseph's losses have come at the hands of the University School (42-0), Bishop Hartley (49-7), Cleveland Central Catholic (13-6) and Parma Heights Holy Name (46-21).
The Blue Devils are hoping to dish out the Vikings' fifth loss, but this winner-take-all game could go either way.
"They could beat us and we could beat them," Hake said. "We just have to go out there and do it Saturday. I know we're going to play our hardest because if you lose you're out. All I want is for our team to play to their potential and play mistake-free football and let the chips fall where they may."