Perfect season, playoff hopes on the line for CCHS, Madonna

WEIRTON — Rival schools that are only about 10 miles apart will face off on the Jimmy Carey gridiron tonight in a game that could make or break either team’s playoff chances.

Steubenville Catholic Central brings it’s 6-2 record to Weirton to face the unbeaten and fifth-ranked Madonna Blue Dons. Game time is 7 p.m.

The game has playoff implications on both sides as teams are going down the home stretch with opportunities to play in the postseason. With one more win, the Blue Dons would pretty much assure themselves of being among the top 16 that make it to the playoffs in West Virginia Class A.

The Crusaders, on the other hand, sit at eighth in the Ohio Division VI, Region 23 computer rankings. The top eight make the playoffs, so it is imperative the Crusaders keep on winning.

The two teams have met on the gridiron 18 times with the Crusaders leading the series 10-6-1, including wins in the last three games.

Blue Don second-year coach Darrin Hicks feels the Crusaders are the best team his club has faced this year.

“They are a heck of a good football team,” he said. “They have an explosive offense with a ton of players, and their defense has speed, size and athletes. They don’t make mistakes on special teams. They are just very solid and a well-coached football team.”

Central veteran coach Steve Daley, whose club has won four straight since opening the season at 2-2, said the same thing about Madonna.

“Madonna is a good football team,” he said. “They’re riding high and they’re playing with confidence. No doubt about it, they have a nice team.”

With Donavan Kirby leading the way, the Blue Dons have not been seriously challenged to date with Central being the first ranked team they face.

Kirby, who will be a challenge for the Crusader defense that has yielded just 150 yards rushing a game, continues to rewrite the Madonna rushing record book. He carried the ball 51 times for 370 yards and six touchdowns last Friday in Madonna’s 51-30 win over Van. Averaging well over 200 yards a game, the junior has gained 1,897 yards in seven games to lead the Herald-Star/Daily Times coverage area. His closest rival, Ty West of Harrison Central, has gained 969 yards in eight games.

Meanwhile, Blue Don quarterback Gavin Dietrich has not thrown the football much, but when he does he is very efficient. He has completed 54 percent of his passes (12-of-22) for 210 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Vinny Pulice has been his favorite target with five receptions.

Daley and his staff will have some decisions to make come game time.

“We have to be able to stop the run and we have to contain Kirby, no doubt about that,” he said. “From what we have seen so far, he’s been dominant. That’s definitely a huge concern for us. Kirby is a big back, a strong back and he moves well. We’ll definitely have our hands full with him.”

Dietrich didn’t pass the ball much the first five games of the season but has gone to the air more the last couple of games. Daley said his Crusaders have a dilemma.

“When you’re expecting Madonna to pound Kirby at you, the next thing you know is they pull it and throw the ball,” he said. “So it’s one of the situations where you’re not sure what do do. If you pile up in the box to stop Kirby, they can beat you deep. If you play off and expect the pass, they give it to him and it’s almost like you’re giving him five yards.”

It could turn out to be sort of like a chess match as Hicks has similar concerns about his defense stopping the Crusaders.

“They use multiple offenses and their quarterback (Justin Hartzell) is an operator,” Hicks said. “They also have a good running back (Craig Smith) and a big offensive line. They are a team that can do a lot of things. They are very impressive with what they do offensively. They have very talented kids that are running the system.”

The Crusaders average 435 yards a game (294 rushing and 141 passing) with an area-best 41 points per game.

Hartzell, a junior, has thrown for 1,127 yards and an area-best 14 touchdowns. He’s been intercepted seven times. Senior Geno DiBiase is his favorite target with 13 catches. Another junior, Smith, has carried the ball 125 times for 873 yards and 14 touchdowns. Hartzell isn’t far behind with 681 rushing yards and seven scores.

“And the Central defense is a stout bunch with linebackers that can run and make plays, and their defensive backs are quick and make good decisions,” Hicks said. “There is not a weakness in any level of their defense.”

One of the other concerns for both coaches is the short week of preparation.

“We had a short week when we played Parkersburg Catholic on a Thursday night,” Hicks said. “So the guys know what we have to get done. At the end of the day, both teams are on the same schedule. That’s how we have to prepare and that’s what we will do.”

Daley said the short week is like NFL teams have to do when they play on Thursday nights.

“Usually Monday is a rest and film day for us, but we had a full practice,” he said. “We had another full practice Tuesday, and on Wednesday we’ll have our pre-game practice.

“But it’s like I told our kids, Madonna is in the same boat as us. It’s a short week for us and it’s a short week for them as well. It’s Central and Madonna, so I’m sure our kids will be focused and ready.”

Both coaches said their keys to victory are the same as always.

“We want no turnovers, but we want to create turnovers,” Hicks said. “We want to run the football and take it away from them. We have to eliminate penalties, win the kick game and be in a position to win in the fourth quarter.

“It will be a challenge. It is a rivalry game between two local Catholic schools across the river from each other. It should be a good atmosphere and a heck of a game.”

Daley’s plan is similar.

“The keys for us are the same keys we always have,” he said. “We have to protect the football, take advantage of opportunities we have and make stops defensively.”

Football Xtra writer Ed Looman contributed to this story.