Bulldogs face Carey in regional finals
HOWARD — It has been an extraordinary football season for the East Knox Bulldogs, who displayed their dominance on both sides of the ball during an unbeaten regular season. It has been the Bulldogs’ performance in the post season, however, that has set them apart.
The 12-0 Bulldogs, and their fans, have been used to their team leading comfortably by the third or fourth quarter, while benefiting from a running clock. The playoffs, however, have unveiled the real strength of this team. In a pair of heart-stopping, 21-20, wins against Crestview and Seneca East, the Bulldogs have had outstanding runs, clutch catches, key interceptions, hard-fought fumble recoveries and even a blocked kick.
In the past two weeks, the Bulldogs have displayed indomitable courage and character. Those are qualities that may help take them all the way to a state title, but first of all, they have to win this Friday’s OHSAA Division VI Region 22 final against the Carey Blue Devils at Ohio Health Stadium in Marion at 7 p.m.
It’s the third time that either school has reached the regional final in their history. That and, perhaps, the fact that Carey has the same nickname as East Knox’s archrival — the Danville Blue Devils — provides even more excitement leading up to the game.
“The excitement is evident everywhere you go around here,” said East Knox coach Cody Reese. “We just talked to the boys about what a great opportunity this is. They’re excited. At the same time, I like the focus that they’ve had this week. We do talk about it and I tell them, ‘It’s school history. At this point in time, we’re still together, as a football family, so let’s continue making our own history.’”
History is for the fans, but the players have to live in the here and now.
“We have to stay focused on the job at hand, but it’s cool to see all of the signs from people in the community and businesses that have given us their support,” Reese said. “It’s very encouraging and it helps to spur our players on to be even better — not that they wouldn’t have — but this has a different buzz that it hasn’t had, so it’s exciting to see.”
The Bulldogs, who only have a single first-half touchdown in the playoffs thus far, have outscored their playoff opponents in the second half, 35-20. It took the Bulldogs’ offense until about halfway through the third quarter before they found a way to get into the endzone against Seneca East. This week’s assignment is to score on a Carey defense that shut out Hillsdale, 7-0, last week.
‘There’s a stout defense in Carey,” Reese said. “They’re very aggressive, they’re quick to the football and they rally to the football, defensively. They have pretty good coverage in their defensive backfield as well. They have good players that play extremely hard for four quarters, so that’s going to be a tough task in itself. We need to make sure that we’re ready to go from the first snap of the game, because, if we’re not, it’s the regional finals and we’re not going to win. There’s no chance in that, so we have to prepare.”
After getting pushed around in the first half by Seneca East last week, the East Knox defense came up with three crucial stops, shutting out Seneca East in the game’s final quarter. East Knox middle linebacker Dawson David is the heart of the Bulldog’s defense, blocking a decisive kick against Crestview and getting a crucial sack to help stop a Seneca East Drive late in the game. David was the area’s top tackler in the regular season with 101. Teammates Weston Melick (70.5) and Gage Steinmetz (50) also lead the East Knox defensive unit.
“I’m very proud of our defense,” Reese said. “They’re making plays. When you can hold playoff teams, of that caliber, to 20 points or less, that’s a great team effort. We’ve been having players step up and make plays, which they didn’t always have the opportunity to do during the regular season. Not that they weren’t there, but it’s different now and it’s definitely fun to see. The kids are having fun and they’re trusting one another. They’re playing hard and they’re playing together. With that mentality of working hard together, it’s a lot of fun to watch and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Carey is led by senior quarterback Ethan Beringer (113-for-211, 1,445 yards) who is also dangerous with his feet. He rushed the ball for a team-high 664 yards on 139 carries. If the Bulldogs can stop Beringer or running backs Reece Billock (97 carries, 450 yards, 58 points) and Connor Williams (128 carries, 370 yards), 56 points, it may force Beringer to throw. His favorite targets are Cade Crawford (42 receptions, 531 yards, five TDs) and Ian Yeater (16 receptions, 302 yards). In the regular season, Beringer tossed seven touchdowns, but he was intercepted six times.
“(Carey) loves to run the football and that is their identity,” Reese said. “We have to make sure we are extremely disciplined on defensive plays, Mentally, knowing where we need to be and being in position and, when we are in that position, we have to make the play. We cannot have any broken plays on any given down, because if we do, they are going to take one to the house. We have got to be the most disciplined that we have been all year.”
East Knox running back Caleb Gallwitz, who finished the regular season with 2,253 yards rushing, picked up most of his 147 rushing yards in last week’s game against Seneca East in the second half. Bulldogs’ quarterback Kadden Lester was only 5-for-15 in last week’s first half, but he was 6-for-6 in the game’s second half, including a 7-yard touchdown pass to Braden Kannaday (four receptions, 61 yards). Kannaday also caught the longest pass of the game — a 37-yarder to help set up a touchdown. Lester’s favorite target could be Steimetz, who was the area’s top receiver with 49 receptions for 674 yards. Also dangerous are receivers Melick (19 receptions, 236 yards) and Cade Leach (16 receptions, 260 yards).
Carey’s defense allowed an average of 115.7 rushing yards per game during the regular season. Their gang-tackling defense is led by Williams, who had 138 tackles. Along with him are Derek Lonsway (82), Cameron Pahl (70), Crawford (61) and Landon Kemmerly (50).
“We have to have the best approach and we have to be extremely physical,” Reese said. “This will be the most physical team we have played all year, so we have to make sure that we are ready to play in terms of their physicality. Mentally, we have to be on top of our game to put ourselves in a position to be successful. They are extremely aggressive. They come off the ball nicely. We play extremely hard so we have to make sure that we are ready, in our fundamentals, to take care of this.”
Marion high school is familiar territory because the Bulldogs got to play there last week.
“Sure absolutely,” said Reese. “I like the fact that we’re going back to the same place. We will also be the away team again, too. That will give our boys some continuity, in that aspect.”
Anyone who has seen the Bulldogs during the regular season has been treated to a whole new experience in the playoffs. It’s just not for the faint of heart.
“It’s fun to see the character of this team come forth,” Reese said. “When adversity strikes, these guys talk about pulling together — not pointing fingers. We’re locking arms tighter and pulling together. They are really embracing that mentality and that’s why they’ve been able to be successful for the last couple of weeks. I just hope we can carry that mentality into this week against Carey.”