Raiders thankful to still be practicing

GREENFORD–When many Americans think of Thanksgiving, they associate the holiday with food, family and, of course, football.

This morning, the South Range football team will participate in the Thanksgiving gridiron tradition when they take the field for their final practice in preparation for Friday’s Division V state semifinal against Pemberville Eastwood.

“We talked about it all the time as one of our goals,” South Range coach Dan Yeagley said. “Thanksgiving Day has always been a day where you watch football on TV with your family and now we’re getting to getting to take part in that which is pretty awesome.”

The second-ranked Raiders (13-0) and top-ranked Eagles (13-0) will vie for a spot in the state title game when they clash at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Strongsville’s Pat Caftan Stadium.

“It’s going to be a cool experience practicing on Thanksgiving,” South Range senior running back/linebacker Peyton Remish said. “Not many teams get the chance to be in this position. We’re all looking forward to it.”

The Raiders held their own team Thanksgiving dinner Tuesday night after practice.

After practicing this morning, Yeagley said the players will be free to spend the rest of the day with their families before the Raiders reconvene on Friday for the 90-minute trip to Strongsville.

“It will be nice for the players to get to spend some time at home with their families. We have some guys who want to go hunting too, so we’ll let them do that,” Yeagley said.

With only two days of school this week, Yeagley said the Raiders also came in early and practiced Wednesday morning. He said it’s a little bit of an adjustment with the abbreviated school schedule, but said that it didn’t affect the Raiders in any meaningful way.

“We’re going to still get our same amount of time in either way,” Yeagley said.

Yeagley said it’s been helpful having already gone through preparation at this late stage of the season in 2005 when the Raiders also made the state semifinals.

“You do learn a little bit,” Yeagley said. “I went back and looked at my notes to see how we handled it. The main thing I remember was that the weather was really crappy that week. We practiced on Thanksgiving Day with eight inches of snow on the ground so we didn’t get a whole lot done.”

With temperatures holding steady in the 30s and 40s all week and little in the way of precipitation, weather won’t be a concern this time around for the Raiders.

Their main worry will be slowing down an Eastwood team that has been dominant for most of the season.

The Eagles come in averaging 41 points per game behind a smashmouth rushing attack that is averaging 325 yards per game on the ground. Last week, the Eagles gained all of their 280 total yards on the ground in their 35-0 regional final win over sixth-ranked Marion Pleasant.

The leader is sophomore running back Jaden Rayford, a first-team All-Northwest District selection, who has run for 1,900 yards and 32 touchdowns.

“He’s a power back that can really run,” Yeagley said.

Rayford is joined in the backfield by Justin Pickerel (458 yards, seven touchdowns), Ceyleon Damron (400 yards, seven touchdowns) and Cooper Comes (355 yards seven touchdowns). The Eagles have been without their second leading rusher Isaac Downard (708 yards, 10 touchdowns) for the duration of the playoffs after he suffered a season-ending injury in week 9.

The Eagles don’t often throw, but Yeagley said quarterback Jake Pickerel (22-for-48 469 yards, eight touchdowns) is capable if the need arises.

“They run out of the wing-T a lot like what we saw last week against Black River, but they’re not quite as deceptive,” Yeagley said. “Their quarterback is pretty good, they can throw the ball if they need too. They have a good set of running backs that run really hard and are faster than Black River’s. They’re very, very fast.”

Yeagley reserved special praise for Eastwood’s offensive line led by first-team all-district tackle Addison Clark and second-team all-district tackle Dalton Andrews.

“I have to give a lot of credit to their offensive line,” Yeagley said. “They’re very explosive and they come off the ball well.”

The Raiders defense, led by district defensive player of the year Peyton Remish at linebacker, has been solid against the run all postseason and won’t be intimidated by the Eagles. South Range took away much of Manchester running back Ethan Wright’s big play ability in the second round and held him to just over 100 yards. Last week, after Black River’s wing-T busted some big plays early in the game, the Raiders largely locked down the Pirates the rest of the way.

“They have some quick backs with great vision that run the ball hard,” Remish said. “We’ve played some tough teams this year, so hopefully that prepared us.”

The Eagles stingy defense has allowed just 8.5 points per game and has registered four shutouts, including three in their last four games. Eastwood has had to play all season without All-Ohio defensive back Cade Boos who broke his leg in week one.

The unit is anchored by defensive end Antonio Salinas, who was named the Northwest District lineman of the year and linebacker Tyler Schmeltz, who was the district defensive player of the year.

“Their defensive line gives offenses fits,” Yeagley said. “They get off the ball and tackle very well. They get after it with a four-man front and their two inside linebackers are very aggressive and fast. They’re not very big but they get after it. They read their keys and get downhill fast. We’re going to have to simulate that at practice. We have a couple of young kids that can do that, thank goodness. Hopefully that will get us ready for Friday night.”

While the Eagles may have the best defense South Range has seen all season, the Raiders will also probably have the best offense that Eastwood has faced.

The Raiders have given area defenses nightmares all season with their zone-read offense led by the backfield combo of all-district first-team quarterback Aniello Buzzacco (1,303 rushing yards, 1,848 passing yards) and Remish (1,733 yards) as well as big-play wideout Mathias Combs (983 receiving yards). Try to take away one of the Raiders main threats and someone else is sure to make a play.

“We have to spread them out,” Remish said. “We have to be able to pass the ball in addition to running it. We need to execute our option plays well.”

Add it all up, and the recipe is there for a hard-fought battle Friday night.

“All year, we’ve just wanted to come out an play our own game every week regardless of who the opponent is,” South Range senior receiver Brennan Toy said. “We just have to keep that up.”