A dormant football rivalry awakens Friday night
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Logan Chieftains set to open season at Athens against team that was once their fiercest rival
By CRAIG DUNN Sports Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
LOGAN — It seems somewhat strange that preparations to open a Logan football season don’t include the Lancaster Golden Gales.
An 11-year, opening-game series with the Fairfield Countians ended after Lancaster edged the Chieftains 43-42 in a double-overtime thriller last fall in Logan Chieftain Stadium.
So, instead of hopping on U.S. Route 33 and heading north this Friday night, the Purple & White will simply head their wagons south down 33 for another short trip and a week-one matchup with a team that was once its fiercest rival.
The Chiefs open their 2015 campaign at Athens, where they will take on the Bulldogs at renovated Rutter Field at Scott Riggs and Family Stadium.
Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. — one of only two 7:30 starts on the Logan schedule this fall. All the others, save for week five at Nelsonville-York, begin at 7.
So, after getting Athens back on the schedule after an eight-year absence, the Chieftains catch the Bulldogs coming off a runner-up state Division III finish. They lost an ultra-exciting state title game by a 56-52 count to Toledo Central Catholic last December in Ohio Stadium.
"That may all be true,” Logan coach Billy Burke said about the decade-long series with Lancaster, his alma mater, “but in the same respect we haven't played Athens in a long time so there is no recent history that's been developed. The recent history when we played Lancaster was unless we were at our very best, we had a hard time with them.
“That psychology doesn't necessarily come into play on us because [the Bulldogs are] a team we haven't seen in a long time,” he continued. “It's a fresh start and a big rival down 33 but not that recent history.”
While Logan has beaten Athens 12 consecutive times and won 16 of the previous 17 meetings, the last time the two teams met — Sept. 14, 2007 at AHS — all of the current Chiefs and ‘Dogs were still in grade school.
This will be the first time the Chiefs and Bulldogs have squared off to open a season since 1923 — two years before the formation of the Southeastern Ohio Athletic League — and, for the time being, it will be the last. Next year’s return game in Logan Chieftain Stadium won’t be played until week six; Logan is slated to play Dublin Jerome to open the ‘16 and ‘17 seasons.
Athens has lost just one regular-season game the past four seasons and has won several Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division championships since leaving the SEOAL.
But, no matter what, the Bulldogs simply cannot be as good as they were a year ago when they set a state record for points scored in a single season (861) running a wide-open offense and basically missed out on winning the state title because then-quarterback Joe Burrow — Ohio’s properly-honored “Mr. Football” — didn’t have enough time to mount one last offensive drive after Toledo Central Catholic scored the winning touchdown with 15 seconds remaining.
Burrow is now at Ohio State, running back Trae Williams is at Northwestern and standout receivers Adam and Ryan Luehrman are playing college football at Ohio University.
While the personnel may be somewhat different, Burke doesn’t expect the Bulldogs to alter their approach to how they play the game.
"I think they probably look a lot like they did a year ago,” Burke said. “It seems that's the offensive philosophy and system that Athens has and I think defensively probably the same thing. It's what they do (and) now they have different personnel executing that same system.
“I can't imagine what it's like to lose some of the players they had… let alone the guy who was player of the year nationally,” he added.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, they won’t have to face him (please see Spencer Waugh’s “scouting report” for additional information about the Bulldogs).
The Chiefs are not as talented as that 2014 Athens team — few teams are — but one thing they will match when it comes to the ’14 Bulldogs is a veteran presence. A team led by 19 seniors will have a returning letterman starting in most positions Friday night.
"A lot of this is the expectation of a senior class that had some success as freshmen,” Burke pointed out. “Your thought process as a kid is ‘we can't wait to see what we're going to look like our senior year.’ Well, now it's that time, and those guys aren't waiting another year anymore. It's finally their time to show what years and years of hard work and competing have done for them and to see our product on the field.”
Week one is usually an uncertain time for most teams for a lot of reasons. In some ways, three pre-season scrimmages aren’t enough.
"Looking back at Circleville (two weeks ago) we finished a lot stronger than we started and the opposite was true against Sheridan (last Friday) when we started off strong and then had a little bit of a lull,” Burke said. “Now we're anxious to see how things play out with us being able to play a whole game.
"I feel good about from an offensive and defensive line perspective of being able to play a whole game's worth of our guys up front wearing on an opponent,” he added.
Playing a whole game and seeing how team stamina holds up over the course of 48 minutes on a warm football Friday night are always week-one questions marks.
"We need whole-game experience,” Burke stated. “You get a little nervous (in scrimmages because) you don't want anybody injured, but at the same time we have to have that trial run in place so that our first full game isn't our first full game.
"During a scrimmage you can get guys an opportunity to get in the game and gain some experience,” he continued. “We had some sophomores who are going to contribute and we had to get them an opportunity to get a lot of playing time. We know what our older guys are going to give us. It's [seeing what] those younger guys can do.”
Seniors such as captains Lane Little, Isaiah Smith and Bryce McBride, as well as the offensive and defensive lines, are experienced, proven commodities.
"I heard someone say [earlier in the week that professional] pre-season football is generally for the coaches to get back in the swing of things and it's for those guys who are trying to prove themselves,” Burke recalled. “Other than that, the veterans kind of don’t want any part of it. And that's not unlike high school. We're looking to evaluate kids but at the same time guys do need to get back in the swing of real-live game situations.”
Even though the actual start of the season isn’t until tomorrow night, Burke senses most of the players on the roster already understand what they have to do.
"I sense that we have a lot of buy-in from a lot of our guys,” Logan’s third-year head coach revealed. “There are some guys a few weeks ago [who] we weren’t sure how much they were committed to what we were trying to do.
"I called one of the coaches on the way home (from a practice earlier in the week) and said 'did you notice how much so-and-so, so-and-so, and so-and-so how have been into game plan and what we're trying to do?’ ” he added. “And (that coach) said the same thing. So it's a total buy-in by everybody that you don't always get.”
The Chiefs came out of scrimmages relatively unscathed — “we’ve been managing some injuries from a couple guys,” Burke said, “but for the most part I’m pretty happy with where we are in the injury front” — and now they are ready to get things started.
“We have great kids and it's fun to come to practice every single day to see what they're up to,” Burke said. “This is why we play the games. We don’t play them on paper. Let's play the game and let the kids decide it on the field.”