EAST LIVERPOOL - The Bears are treating this year's edition of the "Battle of the Bridges" against the Potters as more than just a rivalry game.
With three games left in the regular season, Oak Glen has already begun its playoff push. Head coach Ian Whittington said that from here on every game is make or break for the Bears.
"If we don't win out, we have no shot at the playoffs," the first-year coach said. "Our backs are against the wall. It's live or die. If we win, we stay in the race and if we lose, you can take our name out of the playoff picture. It's playoff football right now."
Tonight marks the 34th edition of the “Battle of the Bridges” between cross-river rivals East Liverpool and Oak Glen. (Photo by Wayne Maris)
Currently, the Bears sit at No. 22 in the WVSSAC playoff ratings in Class AA, leaving five teams between them and the final postseason spot. The top 16 advance with the first eight teams hosting first-round games.
After an open date next week, Oak Glen will play state-ranked Point Pleasant, which jumped to the AAA classification this year, and Magnolia, which dropped to Class A.
"It's a pivotal week," Whittington said. "If we happen to take a loss, I'm sure the attitude of the guys will take a hit for two weeks. But, if we win, that would be three in a row and give us a lot of momentum. We'd have a chance to rest up. This is an extremely crucial game."
To this point in the season, the Bears have been on a rollercoaster ride. After winning the first two games of the season in impressive fashion, Oak Glen stumbled mightily in the next three games only to rebound the past two weeks with road victories.
"We started on a high note," Whittington said. "Then, we faced some adversity and didn't handle it well. But, I give the guys credit. They've been able to bounce back and keep us in the playoff hunt."
For the rival Potters, things haven't gone so well. A 65-12 victory against a winless Toledo Woodward team is the only win East Liverpool can claim.
However, head coach Rick Prescott said his team has had more victories than those that appear in the win column.
"Hubbard really gave it to us," he said. "But, we were in the game against Cambridge. In the end, special teams got us, but we came out and played with them. At times, we looked just as good as them. We've had one of our better weeks of practice and I'm still pleased with the attitude and effort."
If level of competition matters, then the Potters should be more than prepared to handle the Bears.
Oak Glen has four wins on the season, but they have come against teams with a combined record of 5-22. Only two of the Bears' seven opponents have a winning record.
East Liverpool, however, has already faced four teams who currently sit above .500 on the season.
"You learn to play against the competition you face," Prescott said. "We've been in a lot of our games until the last couple of minutes. Our goal is to put four quarters together. Our schedule is no walk in the park, that's for sure. I think our team has improved because of the tough teams we're playing."
If last year's game between the two was any indication, records really don't matter in this rivalry.
Oak Glen was in the midst of what was arguably the best season in school history last year when a winless East Liverpool squad crossed the bridge and gave the Bears all they could handle. Oak Glen would eventually come out on top of a hotly-contested 13-6 affair.
"No matter what the record of either team is, you know it's going to be a fight, a brawl," Whittington said. "It's going to be an emotional, heated, physical game. I think in this game both teams tend to play up."
Prescott echoed Whittington's sentiments.
"It's a rivalry game and there's no way around that," he said. "The kids get excited to play each other. It's about as natural a rivalry as you can get."
According to Whittington, this rivalry, in some ways, is a bigger deal than the one against Hancock County counterpart Weir.
"This is huge," he said. "We see these kids constantly. At the gas station, Walmart, you name it. People are always crossing over to shop or eat. We interact more with them than we do the Weirton kids. It may be an even bigger rivalry when you look at it that way."
NOTES: Whittington said that Oak Glen never beat East Liverpool during his high school career. According to Whittington, Josh Weltner is set to return to kicking duties tonight. However, he is not yet cleared to return to his post as a wide receiver and cornerback. The two teams have played one common opponent in Indian Creek. The Redskins beat East Liverpool 26-12 and the following week downed Oak Glen by a score of 41-9.