Raiders small and mighty up front

GREENFORD — Just by glancing at the roster, the South Range offensive and defensive linemen don’t jump out as a particularly imposing bunch. With the exception of Matt Brooks and Tyler Dolak, most of them range between 200 and 220 pounds.

Once the Raiders take the field, though, it doesn’t take long for their opponents to realize they are in for a taxing 48-minute battle in the trenches.

“We’re smaller up front than almost any team on our schedule, but we pride ourselves on being aggressive and scrappy,” sophomore defensive tackle Anthony Czap said. “In every game, we set out to prove that we’re the most aggressive team out there. I think we’ve competed well with everyone we’ve come across.”

The top-seeded Raiders (12-0) will try and claim the second regional title in school history when they line up against third-seeded Black River (11-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Canal Fulton Northwest’s Dr. Martin Smilek Stadium.

One of the main keys behind the Raiders reaching this point was their ability to own the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in last week’s 34-14 win over Akron Manchester.

The offensive line of tackles Dolak and Jordan Lowery, guards Brooks and Christian Maust, center Brian Robinson and tight ends Ryan Davenport and Jacob Gehring had their way for much of the night and enabled the Raiders to pile up 356 rushing yards.

“We knew coming in that if we were going to win the game, it was going to be on us as a line to deliver,” Brooks said. “We didn’t play that great in the first round against Crestview and I think we really wanted to come out and send a message to everybody.”

The offensive linemen have been the unsung heroes behind a South Range zone-read attack that has averaged 417 yards per game with the area’s best quarterback-running back combo in Aniello Buzzacco and Peyton Remish.

“Our line understands that they just have to get in the way and let our skill kids do what they do,” South Range coach Dan Yeagley said. “Our backs to a great job of finding those little seams and cutting off of blocks.”

While the Raiders don’t overwhelm teams with sheer size, they more than compensate with quickness, sharp execution and a rugged, physical approach.

“As a group, we just love to fire off the ball and play hard,” Brooks said. “Week in and week out we have the mentality that we’re going to be the most physical team on the field.”

“Last week showed how much we’ve kept improving as the season’s gone on,” Dolak said. “We’ve been lifting hard in the weight room every day and really working on getting our fundamentals down.”

Switch over to the defensive line, and it’s the same story.

The Raiders took it personally when Manchester running back Ethan Wright gained over 200 yards in South Range’s week three victory. They vowed that last week’s rematch would be different.

“Yeah, we definitely wanted to send a message,” junior defensive end Ryan Davenport said. “They thought they could run on us and we wanted to show them what we were really all about.”

“People were thinking we couldn’t stop Wright after that first game and that our offense was going to have to win it for us last week,” Czap said. “We thought it was important for our defense to come out and make a statement.”

Czap and Davenport have been two key pieces that have come into their own as the year has gone on.

After not playing much defense as a freshman, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Czap blossomed this season into a first-team all-district tackle.

“I was mostly just a backup on offense last year,” Czap said. “Coming into this season, I just wanted to try and contribute any way I could. “I didn’t see this happening at all.”

Davenport stepped into the starting lineup in week four and has helped make up for the loss of Levi Taylor, who has been limited to kicking duty with a torn ACL.

Davenport made one of the key plays of the game last week when he hauled down Manchester quarterback JoJo France for a loss of 10 yards on a fourth-and-8 from the South Range 12 late in the first quarter. The Raiders promptly took over on downs and went ahead 21-7 with a touchdown march that lasted 13 plays and consumed 6:28 off the clock.

“I was looking back on week four when I first started and my technique was horrible,” Davenport said. “We all had stuff we needed to work on. Over the last couple of months, we’ve gotten more physical and mastered our technique more. “Everything has started to come together.”

The Raiders linemen will be counted on heavily again this week against a Black River team that seems to mirror their gritty, physical brand of football.

“As the year has gone on, the guys up front have done a great job of cleaning up mistakes and also being more aggressive because they’re starting to understand what we’re trying to do,” Yeagley said. “You go back and look at the first Manchester game and we didn’t consistently win the war in the trenches, last week we did. That’s a battle we’re going to have to win again this week.”