“I know almost none of you guys will read this and thinks it’s stupid if you do, but starting tomorrow, August 1st, we just go after each other and push it to the limits and never look back. Let’s get this team where it needs to be and bring back Black River football the way it was and should be.”
Complete with a black background and gold lettering, the letter still hangs in the Black River field house.
Austin Jones heard the whispers.
The Pirates lost three of the most productive players in school history in Jon Sas, Jake O’Connor and Matt Joppeck.
The Patriot Athletic Conference got tougher with the addition of Firelands and Fairview. An 18-game non-conference losing streak was hanging over the program like a radioactive cloud.
So the night before two-a-days, the fiery senior linebacker sat down at his computer. With emotion flowing from his fingertips, Jones typed until he ran out of room on an 8×11-inch piece of paper.
The words were chilling yet inspiring. The message was clear: Black River wasn’t going to be just PAC Stars Division champion. Come hell or high water, the Pirates were going to the Division IV, Region 13 playoffs.
“You are only as strong as your weakest link. If that means studying your playbook a little harder or working harder in practice, do it. I want to share the most unbelievable season with my teammates. I’ll see you guys later in the season.”
Now vindicated by his words — the Pirates play Manchester on Saturday night at Art Stevenson Field — Jones refuses to back down.
“That’s just how I felt about my team,” he said. “We’re great. I know we can do great things, and I wanted to show them that with hard work everything will pay off in the end.”
Leadership like that is hard to ignore. So, too, is the way the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder plays — with reckless abandon.
Already this season, No. 35 has a team-high 121 tackles, 12 for loss, six sacks and four forced fumbles. Those numbers are impressive on their own, but consider Jones played sparingly in many second halves because of blowouts and hardly played at all against Buckeye after severely straining his hamstring.
The injury itself couldn’t keep Jones down, and it hasn’t scared away colleges like Robert Morris from calling. He grudgingly sat the final three quarters against the Bucks despite begging the coaches to get back on the field. He played through the pain against Wellington, Brookside, Firelands and Keystone because, as anyone with a pair of eyes knows, “A.J.” at 50 percent is better than most others at 100.
Now after rest, vitamin therapy, massages and wearing a sleeve bought by coach Al Young, Jones is back doing what he does best.
“Kill,” he said. “Every last person I see, I just hit them hard. You want to break them every play, you want to break them down. You’ve got to let them know you’re there. You just want them to know that you’re going to make that play no matter what.”
Few know that better than center Doug Church, who knocks heads with Jones every day in practice.
“He’s an inspiration to all of us,” Church said. “When he’s on, we’re all on. It fires all of us up. He’s a good player all around. It’s his heart and determination. He’ll never give up. When he’s hurt, he’s still wanting out on the field.”
And wanting to ensure his teammates don’t forget that preseason message — even if they may rib him for the headline that reads “Practis like everyday is your last.”
“Remember: New season, new Pirates. Let’s prove the critics wrong and make the dream come true. Anything less than a state title is a disappointment. If you aren’t on this team to do that, then you really don’t belong on this team. It’s time to step up and change things.”
All signs point to a Saturday-night shootout. Both teams average nearly 40 points per game, and both defenses have struggled to keep quality opponents from scoring.
Black River’s offense has put up monster yards when it has mattered. Vaughn is one of the most electric D-IV running backs in Northeast Ohio, and Austin Phillips provides the tough yards when needed from his fullback spot.
What makes the Pirates nearly unstoppable is a newfound passing attack with Kuntz at the controls. The junior right-hander has thrown for over 1,000 yards and has 12 touchdowns, and has the athleticism to extend plays. While the receivers’ production has been so-so — Nick Morrow leads the group with eight receptions for 140 yards — 6-4 tight end Guilford (14, 226, 6) and Vaughn (22, 415, 4) create major mismatches against linebackers.
Black River has an opportunistic defense (23 turnovers) led by Guilford (65 tackles, 22 for loss) and Austin Jones (112, 12). The Pirates have played well in eight of 10 games, but were lit up for 48 and 55 points against fellow playoff teams Wellington and Firelands.
Manchester counters with a single-back shotgun offense with three receivers, a tight end and a
6-5, 285-pound center (Tony Matteo) who has a full ride to West Virginia. Peyakov has thrown for over 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns — Shoemaker is his top receiving threat — while Graves (852 yards, 12 TDs) has been outstanding since returning from injury.
Much like Black River, the Panthers’ 5-3 defense has been solid against the run. Manchester has allowed 62 points over its last two games, including 28 to 2-8 Fairless. Nose guard Clayton Hanzel has a team-leading 107 tackles, Nick Kasmar has six sacks and Shoemaker has six interceptions.
Expect this showdown to be wild. Manchester will no doubt be gearing up to slow down Vaughn, so someone else may have to step up for Black River. The Pirates’ high-octane offense means a two-touchdown deficit isn’t a disaster like in years past, but that won’t matter if the Panthers put up more than 40 points like Wellington and Firelands.
Unsung hero: Jake Sexton, senior, running back/defensive back
What a difference a year makes. Last season, the 5-foot-9, 155-pounder lost his starting running back spot to Andrew Vaughn after sustaining a shoulder injury. Sexton was forced to watch from the sidelines for most of the season as Black River won its first Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division championship.
Now healthy, Sexton gets lost in the limelight, but has more than proven his worth as the Pirates head into Saturday’s Division IV, Region 13 playoff game with Manchester.
“It’s definitely been our goal all year: To get to this point,” Sexton said. “Finally getting there is a great feeling. I really can’t wait for Saturday to know what it’s like to be in a playoff game.”
As a halfback in Black River’s Wing-T offense, Sexton is the third option behind budding star Vaughn (1,994 yards from scrimmage, 162 points) and hard-charging fullback Austin Phillips (891 yards, 14 total TDs). Even so, Sexton has compiled 536 yards on just 62 carries — a healthy 8.7 per carry.
Sexton has also provided a steady presence at cornerback, where he has 61 tackles and six pass breakups.
The senior also returns kicks, has caught nine passes for 121 yards and his three touchdowns have been for an average of 43 yards.
“He came back stronger than ever and has had a great year for us,” 22nd-year coach Al Young said. “He’s one of those kids who you don’t notice until the game’s over, but he never really comes off the field. He does a lot of things for us.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.