Thank you, Big Red, for the great memories

I want to deliver a simple message to Hall of Fame coach Reno Saccoccia, his talented, hard-working staff and his 2017 Big Red football team — Thank you!

Thank you for a perfect, championship season. Thank you for the 50-36 victory over a very strong, very talented Clarksville Clinton-Massie team. Thank you for overcoming adversity, working hard, sticking together and bringing an Ohio Division IV title to Steubenville. Thank you for putting a focus on team chemistry, unity and work ethic.

Back in August during my annual preseason conversation with Saccoccia (the coach’s favorite interview of the year, by the way), we talked about the back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Columbus Bishop Hartley — a 24-21 defeat in 2016 and a 31-28 setback a year earlier.

“As individuals,” he said, “you don’t forget seasons like we had in 2015 and 2016. For some of us, it definitely is motivation to go a step further.”

Thank you to the Big Red football program for going a step further in 2017. What a season it was.

It ended with Big Red’s fourth all-time championship and its first in Division IV. Big Red’s first championship season of 1984 produced a Div. II crown. In 2005 and 2006, Steubenville earned Division III championships.

By winning in Div. IV this season, Big Red became only the sixth Ohio school to capture football championships in three different divisions. Other schools to record that accomplishment are Canton Central Catholic, Cleveland Benedictine, Maria Stein Marion Local, Minister and Youngstown Cardinal Mooney.

No team, by the way, has won in four different divisions since the “division era” began in 1980.

Thank you to offensive standouts Johnny Agresta, Jacob Bernard, Jonathon Blackmon, Javon Davis, DaJuan Jones, Gino Pierro and Alec Taylor for giving me so many outstanding plays to describe in my stories. It was great to see Bernard and Taylor return to the lineup after recovering from injuries and having big seasons. It was unfortunate, however, to see Bernard go down in the championship game. He was having another huge game, and who knows how many yards he would have finished with had the injury not happened.

Thanks to the guys along the offensive line in Tyler Ely, Alijah Demitras, Marlon Lawrence, Reuben Saxon, Quentin Moore, Ty Arlesic, Zack Ekey, Keonte Holmes, Kaleb Brown and Cesare Jennings for opening huge holes for the running backs and giving Davis time to complete his passes.

Ekey, a 6-3, 285-pound senior, had his promising season cut short by an injury in the opener against Upper St. Clair. He did, however, manage to jog onto the turf of Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium and line up at wingback for the final play of the title game. Ekey’s return drew a loud roar from the Big Red crowd.

Saxon missed all of 2016 and the first five games of this season with an injury. He returned, as Saccoccia pointed out, when “our offensive line was depleted with injuries after we lost Ekey, Jennings and Brown.”

Thanks to the defensive unit and guys like Moore, Lawrence, Kwadre Williams, Jaziah Blackwell, Randy Mitchell, Eric Lulla, Blackmon, Pierro, Jones, Jamal Petteway, Andoni Demitras, Taylor and Agresta for delivering big play after big play throughout the 15-game season.

Thanks to all the players who stepped up and filled in when starters went down with injury.

Petteway is a prime example. He filled in at tailback when Bernard went down against Clinton-Massie.

“We told him protection of the ball was more important than yards,” Saccoccia said. “He really stepped up and helped us out.”

Thanks to the entire Big Red team for making it through a tough, tough four-game stretch in the playoffs.

“If you look back, at least in my opinion, it was the toughest road anyone has had to fight through in Division IV,” Saccoccia said. “First, we took on Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, which has had tremendous playoff success in Divisions II, III and IV.

“Then, we went against a Perry team that was 25-2 over the last two seasons (both losses coming to Big Red). After that, it was Shelby, which went 24-3 during the last two years. In the title game, we played a well-respected former state champion in Clinton-Massie.”

The main key to surviving that brutal stretch, according to Saccoccia, was staying healthy, both physically and mentally.”

“It showed in the state title game what one injury can do to your team,” Saccoccia said referring the injury suffered by Bernard.

Saccoccia also stressed the importance of both players and coaches staying fresh.

“Our coaches work extremely hard for the program, but somehow they found the ability to stay fresh during the course of a long season,” he said. “At the same time, they have the ability to grind also. If you look up grind in the dictionary, you’ll find pictures of our coaches right next to it.”

Mutual trust between the players and the coaches also played a key role in Big Red’s 2017 success.

“Both our coaches and our players have to trust the game plan and execute the game plan,” he said. “Players have to trust what we as coaches are putting together, and the coaches have to trust the players to execute the plan. We’ve been able to develop that mutual trust within our program.”

I also want to thank senior members of the 2017 squad. I want to thank them for being part of teams that went 41-3 during the past three seasons and reached three straight championship games. It’s been a great three-year ride and, as the Big Red football beat writer, I’ve certainly enjoyed it.

For Saccoccia, the fourth state championship took on an “all in the family” type of feel.

Joining him on the championship season run were his son, JoJo, two sons-in-law, Jason Kernahan and John Arlesic, along with grandson, Ty Arlesic.

Thanks again to all those who associated with the Big Red football program. And, let’s do it again in 2018!