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Fitch set to take on Massillon

When two high school football team find themselves tucked within the top ten spots of the Associated Press poll, there’s going to be plenty of eyeballs focused firmly on what should be a primetime showdown.

It’s Week 6, but as September slowly fades away, the opportunity to cement a legacy is there in front of an energetic and immense audience.

Such is the case tonight at historic Paul Brown Tigers Stadium, as Massillon Washington (4-1) welcomes Austintown Fitch (5-0) to town. The Tigers are currently ranked third in the Division II AP poll while the Falcons are ranked ninth.

“There’s certain games and certain teams that naturally heighten your focus and just demand your respect. This is one of those games.” Fitch coach TJ Parker said. “It’s a game that you naturally get up for and our kids know that they have to be ready in order to perform on Friday night.”

Austintown and Massillon first met back on October 4th, 1985, when the Falcons left town with a nailbiting 21-19 victory. The Falcons knocked off the Tigers yet again, 14-10, following a last-second touchdown dive by Leo Hawkins on a rainy evening as part of the Falcons magical 1986 campaign.

Both schools traded blows on the gridiron during the late ’80s into the early ’90s, their wins and losses looking more like a see-saw every season, but recent history hasn’t been as kind to Fitch. They’re searching for their first victory over the Tigers since a 7-6 win at home back in 2015. Massillon owns a 19-8 record all-time over the Falcons, who haven’t won at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium since 2014.

In many regards, the Tigers have been spectacular this season. They are coming off a 31-28 victory over nationally-ranked St. Edward last Friday. Massillon senior running back Willtrell Hartson, who has 631 yards rushing and 10 total scores, has several with Divison I offers. Sophomore quarterback Jalen Slaughter, has recorded 956 passing yards and 10 touchdowns, has an offer from Kent State.

Senior wideout Ardell Banks, who has several offers from MAC schools, has caught 18 passes for 436 yards and five scores.

“I think they’re really good in the box on defense, they really get the ball and tackle. They want to clog you up in the middle and that’s one thing that’ll be a challenge for our run game,” Parker said. “I just think their overall team speed and ability to make plays, they have big playmakers on all of their offensive skill positions.

“They’re a track team or they need to be a track team, and they’re that same old physical Massillon team. But I think what jumps out to me is that (Slaughter) is a sophomore and his progression has sped up has led to the ability to throw the ball and get those playmakers, which makes their running back much more special.”

Fitch has seen progression themselves this season, averaging 42.4 points per game on offense while allowing 19.2 on defense. Junior quarterback DeShawn Vaughn Jr. has shown poise in his first season under center, passing for 656 yards and eight scores. He’s also rushed for 174 yards and four scores.

Senior running back Jamell James has 562 rushing yards and nine touchdowns while junior DJ Williams has 482 yards rushing and six scores. Senior Jayden Eley has 14 catches for 316 yards and four touchdowns.

On defense, junior Brian Robinson has recorded 40 total tackles, 11 for a loss, and 5.5 sacks. Senior Cam Smith follows behind with 22 tackles and an interception.

“Austintown is a great team, they’re a fantastic program,” said Tigers coach Nate Moore. “They’re good everywhere, they got five or six Division I kids. Speed all over the field, great size on their lines, especially their defensive line.

“Our offense is led by our offensive line. Those guys have really developed over the course of the year and everything goes behind them.”

Last season, Fitch nearly had the Tigers had number, but a slew of special team miscues and mental errors played into the Falcons downfall in a 31-21 loss at home while having players banged up.

Younger players had to step up throughout the 2021 season. Eventually, a worn-torn roster finished the second half of the season strong. That experience has led to a more fine-tuned Falcons team this fall, but they approach another battle tonight.

“All these guys played young and were asked to play a lot of plays for us,” Parker said. “Now as upperclassmen, it really feels like they’ve been in the program for a really long time. They’re out there now just enjoying the moment.”

It’s late September, but potential implications for November are on the table. For two programs full of “legacy games”, the opportunity to pen a tale is there.

“After last week and the respect that Massllion demands, it’s a really great opportunity for our team and our guys and one that I’m excited about,” Parker said. “It’s one we have nothing to lose, and I know our kids are excited about that opportunity and to play in that environment and to be successful in that environment.

“It is right in the heart of the season, and there’s so much that’s going to come out of this game win, lose, or draw. There’s so many learning moments that we can get, it’s going to feel like a playoff game mid-year. We know there’s going to be adversity Friday night, how we respond to that, that can propel us forward.”

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