Ready for Round 2

Falcons, Raiders improved and different since Week 4 classic

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Warren G. Harding’s Brysen Powell (26) tries to run through the tackle of Austintown Fitch’s Dan Evans III in a Week 4 matchup won by the Falcons, 25-21. The two meet again this Friday in Austintown in a Division II playoff game.

One of the most talked about matchups of the 2020 regular season will be getting a part two in the third round of the postseason.

Back in Week 4, the Warren G. Harding Raiders and Austintown Fitch Falcons squared off, with the Falcons taking the win 25-21, and sending the Raiders to a 1-3 record on the year.

Now, the two teams will face off once again Friday in a Division II regional quarterfinal in Austintown.

“We’re eight months into our new era of Fitch football, so the growth that we have from week-to-week is something that I know our staff is super proud of,” Falcons coach T.J. Parker said. “I think we’re a different team, and offensively, I think we’ll see that Friday night.”

Similarly, Harding isn’t the same team it was in Week 4. Since the loss in mid-September, the Raiders have won four straight games, including two massive playoff wins over Akron North and Maple Heights. The Raiders have blown out their two postseason opponents by a combined score of 80-6.

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Fitch’s Devin Sherwood, right, is brought down ball by Harding’s Chester Adams, left, and Jabari Felton, bottom, on Sept. 18.

That success has come from an emphasis on focus as well as the natural growth a team makes as the season progresses.

“We talk about laser focus quite a bit,” Raiders coach Steve Arnold said. “I think it really helped us last week against Maple Heights, and we’re going to need a sharper laser focus this Friday against Fitch.”

In the first meeting between the two teams, the Falcons blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to narrow the Harding lead to 13-12. As the playoffs have progressed, the Raiders have made it a goal to clean everything up and cut back on as many mistakes as possible.

“I think obviously, we’ve matured, and we’ve improved vastly from Week 4 to Week 8,” Arnold said. “I think the biggest way we’ve improved is our running game. We’ve been able to run the football and do some various things, but I think we become a more complete football team offensively, defensively and special teams. If you look back at the first game, that blocked punt was very costly against us, so we’ve tried to shore up some things in every facet that we possibly can.”

Fitch was just as dominant in its playoff match, beating Twinsburg 35-0. Despite the success, the Falcons can still feel the doubts lingering. Luckily for them, they’ve thrived in situations like this.

“That’s been the story of Fitch football for a while now,” Parker said. “That’s what’s embedded in their heads. We talked about it today with the team and said ‘People are always going to be whispering and talking and setting limitations on you, but the only thing we can do is get so far away from those people by blowing through their expectations and limitations that we can’t even hear them anymore.’ “

That attitude is all a part of the culture change that’s undergone since Parker took over the program back in December. In his preparation for the game, Arnold has seen improvement in the Falcons but has really noticed an increase in confidence from Fitch.

“I think they’ve improved, but I think the biggest aspect right now for them is they’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Arnold said. “Confidence carries you a long way. T.J.’s done a great job injecting energy into the program.”

With all the success the Falcons have had through the passing game with quarterback Devin Sherwood, Parker believes the key to Friday’s game will come on the ground.

“On both sides of the ball, we have to stop the run and limit the big plays,” he said. “I think they have to do the same thing. They have to limit our big plays, especially in the passing game. I think that, to me, means they’re going to give us some things in the box that we have to take advantage of if we want to win the game, so we have to prove that we can run the ball to win.”

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. The winner of Friday’s game will advance to take on the winner of Hudson and Painesville Riverside.


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