Give outgoing Black River two-way lineman Doug Church credit for being early.
What started out as a silly bet among friends has morphed into something a whole lot bigger.
During the preseason, senior classmates Austin Jones and Jake Sexton told their good buddy he wasn’t allowed to shave until the Pirates lost. Obviously, that took awhile, as Black River rattled off six straight wins.
True to his word, the 6-foot, 260-pounder shaved the wild beard after losses to Wellington and Firelands, but the superstition was too successful to ignore. The karma had to continue, so now inching toward three weeks without being touched by a razor, the beard is back.
If Church has anything to say about it, the gruff will become more Grizzly Adams-esque than ever. The Pirates are four wins from a state title, and top-seeded Girard is up next in the Division IV, Region 13 semifinals Saturday at 7 p.m. at Uniontown Lake High School.
“Here it is now, and it’s going to keep going,” Church said with a grin. “Everyone just looks and laughs.”
While the beard has become a running gag within the halls of Black River High School, make no mistake: There’s no laughing when opponents square off with No. 78.
“He’s a freak of nature,” Jones said. “You touch him the wrong way, he’s going to throw you through a locker. He’s just one of those type of guys, but when you get to know him, he’s the nicest guy ever. He’s got a nice little girlfriend right now, too. All linemen do. We’ve been winning.”
It’s been a long journey of growth for Church. He started on the offensive line as a sophomore, yet coach Al Young was hesitant to play him both ways because Church’s motor wasn’t always firing on all cylinders.
Finally, everything clicked. Church became an undeniable leader with a bear mentality that is teddy off the field and grizzly on it. He hit the weights to shed the baby fat that prohibited him from reaching his athletic potential, which was scary in itself since Church was nimble enough to catch sideline-hugging passes from Dakota Kuntz when he goofed off before practice.
The results speak for themselves. Church moved from guard to center in the offseason and is an integral part of an offense that averages 40.7 points and 443.7 yards per game. He’s paved the way for two 1,000-yard rushers in Andrew Vaughn and Austin Phillips.
Church also has a respectable 24 tackles as a defensive tackle, and meeting 285-pound West Virginia recruit Tony Matteo head on last week was a big factor in the Pirates shutting down Manchester’s running game.
“It’s been hard,” Church said. “I’ve had to come out, strap up every single day and give it my all. You can’t take a day off.”
As Church has proven once and for all this season, he hasn’t taken a day off and his confidence is through the roof.
If the Pirates reach their ultimate goal of a state championship, they’ll look back to August, laugh and think of Church’s rallying call.
Fear the beard.
Austin Phillips, junior fullback
By now, everyone knows about Andrew Vaughn. The Black River sophomore running back has over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 180 points.
Junior fullback Austin Phillips has had an outstanding season as well, and it’s easy to see why he gets lost in the shuffle with Vaughn in the same backfield.
“He loves to run people over,” 22nd-year coach Al Young said of Phillips. “He’s super fast.”
Phillips surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau last week in a 49-25 win over Manchester in the opening round of the Division IV, Region 13 playoffs. He’s averaging an impressive 8.6 yards per touch and has 16 total touchdowns.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder has been red-hot, too, with 18 carries for 339 yards and six touchdowns over the past two games.
Throw in 41 tackles, including 10 for loss, as a linebacker and Phillips has provided the Pirates with the complete package.
“He’s been a great asset to us,” Young said. “The kid’s bearing down on 1,100 yards. That’s great.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.