Fitch, Harding set for showdown
WARREN — Reeling after its second consecutive loss to drop to 3-3 and riddled by injuries, the Austintown Fitch football team started approaching its remaining games as one-week seasons.
Now, three weeks later, the Falcons enter their contest at Warren G. Harding tonight with back-to-back wins and the opportunity to host a playoff game with a win. Fitch (5-3) enters tonight’s contest at seventh in the Division II, Region 5 standings.
Part of the turnaround is the Falcons getting healthier, head coach T.J. Parker says, and the other part was working through what he described as growing pains.
“We were hit with a lot of injuries and had a lot of young guys that were forced to play for us,” he said. “The more game experience they get, the better they’re getting in terms of understanding what they need to do. We’re still going through that, we’re just doing a better job of overcoming the mishaps in all three phases of the game.”
The Raiders (5-4) enter with a similar story. Harding began its season 1-4 but has rattled off four consecutive wins to get back into contention for a home playoff game of its own. WGH enters at ninth in the same rankings as Fitch, and a win likely would put Harding into the top eight and in position for that first-round home matchup.
“You have to give the kids a lot of credit for having the start we did and being in position to get a home playoff game, and assistant coaches to continue to fight and claw and coach our tails off to improve and make adjustments,” head coach Steve Arnold said.
Neither Arnold nor Parker said they’ve discussed the home playoff scenarios with their teams, and instead are focusing on this week first.
In the Raiders, Parker identifies a team with plenty of weapons at the skill positions, particularly at wide receiver.
“They have two of the best wide receivers in the state. The ball gets into those guys’ hands, and they can take it,” Parker said.
The two receivers he highlighted are Syracuse commit Dom Foster and Tyriq Ivory, though Johnnie Taylor has stepped in for the Raiders as of late, too. Foster has 24 catches for 642 yards and 10 touchdowns this year, while Ivory has 27 grabs for 509 yards and seven scores.
Dalys Jett, the quarterback at Harding, “has done a very nice job of extending plays and getting it to those guys to give them a chance to make plays,” Parker said.
Defensively, the Raiders “play fast and hard,” according to Parker. Foster features at defensive back, while Kincaid Tyson is a wrecking ball and routinely pressures quarterbacks.
“You see on film a lot of things they do and do well, but when we get out there Friday, we have to execute our game plan and focus on us,” Parker said.
For Fitch, that begins with winning the field position battle, according to the Falcons’ head coach. Parker says the defense needs to force 3-and-outs, the offense needs to drive the ball well and the special teams have to be sound to put Fitch in advantageous positions.
Beyond that, Parker says turnovers will play a critical role in the game.
Arnold, meanwhile, has the Raiders focused on Fitch quarterback Devin Sherwood, who can make plays in the air and on the ground.
“I think he’s a great leader and competitor, and does a lot of things. He’s the guy that makes them go,” Arnold said.
Sherwood is 115-for-180 on the year for 1,761 yards and eight touchdowns, and has added 626 yards and nine scores on 97 rushes. Behind him, D.J. Williams has run for 341 yards and six scores on 55 carries, and receivers Tyler Evans and Jayden Eley have teamed up for 57 receptions, 939 yards and four touchdowns.
“We just have to try and contain him, just swarm to the football,” Arnold said of Sherwood. “He’s going to make plays; he’s too good not to make plays. But you try to minimize his big-play capability. He can make the big plays, and he enables others to make them as well.”
Arnold says those efforts begin with improving tackling, as well as forcing turnovers. Offensively, the Raiders want to continue to use their weapons, but also develop a steady run game, Arnold noted.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Mollenkopf Stadium.