By CRAIG DUNN Sports Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
LOGAN — For the first time since the 2008 and 2009 teams went undefeated, the Logan Chieftains are set to enter the second half of a football season having won at least two games.
For that matter, the Chiefs (2-3) enter the second half of this season having won any first-half games for the first time since 2009 — they started 0-5 in 2010, ’11 and ’12 — and can reach the .500 mark Friday (7:30 p.m. kickoff) when they open Southeastern Ohio Athletic League play against Portsmouth (2-3) in Logan Chieftain Stadium.
Last week’s 14-12 non-league victory at Nelsonville-York — a team that embarrassed the Purple & White 50-0 a year ago — was certainly a good start entering part two of the season. And Logan plays three of its final five games at home, including three of its four SEOAL contests.
Like the Chieftains, the Trojans are under the direction of a new head coach. Jason Sparks took over for Curt Clifford this summer and, like Burke, is looking to turn things around for a football program that’s had some excellent athletes but, especially since joining the SEOAL in 2006, oftentimes has underachieved.
And as the Chiefs try to turn the corner, Burke sees 6-foot-3, 175-pound senior Evan DeLong as a mirror image of the team’s progress.
“In talking to the assistant coaches (who were with the program in 2012), if you would have asked them a year ago if Evan (would be) the player that he is this year, they thought he would have played some, but they never would have guessed he’d have the success that he’s had to this point,” Burke said. “I think (DeLong) represents us: he comes to work every day, he does what’s asked of him, and he’s very coachable. It’s shown in the progress that he’s made each and every week.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” he added, “but we have made progress for the most part each and every week.”
DeLong thinks the same thing.
“I think I’ve come a long way this year,” said DeLong, who set a school record with a 101-yard pick-six interception return against Loudonville. “I didn’t get to see the field a lot last year but I think I’m stepping up in different positions.
"We lost our first two games and we could have just thrown in the towel," he continued. "We’ve just kept working and haven’t hung our heads. I think the seniors are doing a nice job to encourage younger guys to do well. I think we are in a good spot right now."
Like so many Chieftains, DeLong has been moved all over the place by the Logan coaching staff in trying to find the right fit for a team that's dealt with a lot of injuries to key personnel.
“He started the season as a receiver — and he’s a darn good receiver — and he’s played corner, where he might have been a better corner than a receiver,” Burke said. “And now he doesn’t play corner at all; he’s more of a strong safety/linebacker. We’ve needed him to step up and fill that role… the same as we have asked a lot of other guys to step in and play different roles, whatever is needed each week.
"One of the adages in coaching football is to put your best 11 on the field," Burke continued. "If 11 defensive linemen were your best 11 players, then you would try to figure out a way for those linemen to be successful. That’s what we’re trying to do each and every week —put our best guys out there — and sometimes its packages of guys who go out there.
"I think we’ll continue to go with that plan and that philosophy for the rest of the season; it’s worked out okay to date and we’re always revising it each week."
The Trojans make their second-ever appearance in Logan Chieftain Stadium — they stunned the Chiefs 24-21 in double-overtime two years ago — in somewhat the same boat as the Chiefs: they’ve also dealt with more than their share of injuries and are still making personnel adjustments.
And, like Logan, Portsmouth knocked off a fierce rival last week. The Trojans not only defeated Ohio River rival Ironton 33-20, but they did so in Ironton’s historic Tanks Memorial Stadium.
"They played with a backup quarterback (Sky Oliver) who they like a lot,” Burke said. "They’re more of a spread-style offense (so) we have to stop (Oliver) and the running back (Johnnie Charles). They can throw down the field and (Alex Dickerson) is a dangerous receiver.
"Defensively they’re solid," he added. Not as big or as physical as other defenses the Chiefs have faced, "if we play our game offensively like last week and hold onto the ball, and not give the game away, I think we can control the ball on the ground and have some success."
DeLong, who was involved in 12 tackles (three solo) last week at N-Y, leads the Chiefs in solo (16) and total (47) tackles and is second in assists (31). Only fellow senior Austin Scarberry (38) has assisted on more tackles.
“I feel a lot more comfortable in the position I’m in,” DeLong said. “I’ve played it for a couple weeks now and it’s really working out well.”
Because the Chiefs have been so busy fitting different players into different slots, they’ve yet to achieve a comfort level… but that’s beginning to change.
“Guys are starting to get comfortable,” Burke said. “Part of the reason we’ve had to change what we’re doing is because we had different guys in all the time… especially from the defensive side. We’ve (now) played a similar style of defense the past several weeks and that’s translated into some success.
“Offensively we’re coming into our own,” he added. “Guys are getting repetitions and getting comfortable. Getting comfortable X’s and O’s-wise helps you play a lot faster, and I thought we played pretty fast last Friday. (The) more speed we play with, the more comfortable that we get.”
It really all comes down to playing with confidence.
"When you haven’t had success, one negative (event) snowballs," Burke said. "We fumbled that opening kickoff (against N-Y, and) we could easily have folded our tents right then. That’s why I feel good going into league play with the way we handled that adversity. There’s always going to be adversity; it's who handles it the best is the team that’s successful."
“They (the Buckeyes) beat us 50-0 up here last year,” DeLong said, “and we went down there and beat them. I think most of the guys’ mentalities were that we weren’t going to take it anymore and not let them push us around.”
DeLong was asked to expound upon that thought.
"I think the atmosphere is a lot different," he said, crediting the seniors with playing a big role. "The guys expect a lot more of each other this year. I think there’s better communication. The way we handle things is a lot better than it was last year."