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Big Red has tough road test to conclude regular season

BLOCKING — Camden Daley and the Big Red football team travel to face Austintown Fitch Friday for the first time in program history. (Photo by Joe Catullo)

AUSTINTOWN — Big Red returns from its coronavirus-induced bye week Friday with a trip to face an unbeaten and state-ranked opponent.

Austintown Fitch is off to its first 5-0 start since 2013. Last week, the Falcons, ranked 11th in this week’s Ohio AP Division II poll, rolled to an impressive 42-14 victory over Cleveland Benedictine. The 42 points were the most the Bengals have allowed all season, which features a schedule of Akron Hoban, Massillon and Akron St. Vincent St. Mary’s

The kick for the first meeting between the schools is set for 7 p.m. inside Greenwood Chevrolet Austintown Falcon Stadium.

“Fitch is just a good, solid football team all around,” Big Red coach Reno Saccoccia said. “They play great offense, they play great defense and they are outstanding on special teams.

“They’ll keep you on your toes on fourth down, and they’ll keep you on your toes with kickoffs. They are liable to do anything at any time. They’re 5-0, and they are 5-0 for a number of reasons.”

Under first-year coach T.J. Parker, Fitch has posted victories over Boardman (33-3), Youngstown Ursuline (56-28), Youngstown Chaney (21-14), Warren Harding (25-21) and Benedictine.

Junior quarterback Devin Sherwood directs the Fitch offense. As a sophomore, Sherwood threw for 1,445 yards and ran for 787. In the victory over Benedictine, he rushed for 76 yards on 15 carries and completed 15 of 26 passes for 251 yards. Sherwood ran for one score and threw for three more.

“The quarterback is more than pretty good — he’s really good,” Saccoccia said. “He’s a true dual threat, plus he’s a good leader.

“He’s shown his leadership especially in games that were close, and Fitch was able to win those games at the end. He has made the biggest plays when they were needed.”

Sherwood is one of eight returning offensive starters from 2019 when the Falcons went 5-5.

He is joined in the Falcon backfield by junior Tyree Mitchell and senior Nate Leskovac.

Fitch’s veteran receiving corps includes senior Todd Simons, junior Tyler Evans and junior Donnie Ellis. Against Benedictine, Simons caught six Sherwood aerials for 111 yards. Senior Jaden Murray mans the tight end spot.

In the rout of Benedictine, Fitch built a 20-0 lead. The Falcons amassed 442 total yards of offense, 191 coming on the ground.

“No one person stands out more than another — this is just a really good football team,” Saccoccia said. “They have a good quarterback, two good running backs and several good receivers.

“Defensively, they are strong. It’s a just a good team that is really going to challenge our manhood on Friday night.”

The 3-1 Big Red has not played since Sept. 17 when it was blanked 31-0 by New Philadelphia. Its Week 5 game at Wheeling Park was canceled when Ohio County moved to gold on West Virginia’s COVID protocols map. Teams in gold counties are able to play opponents within their own county or play against schools from other gold counties.

Saccoccia said his Big Red spent the week concentrating on a couple of areas.

“We focused on areas where we need to improve and what we need to improve in those areas,” he said. “At the same time, we worked on the things we are doing well and tried to improve. We have to stay focused right now. Every day has to be a good day; we cannot have any more off days.

“We got our butts kicked in New Philadelphia, then we were off and didn’t get to play. We’ll see if we have improved any when we return to the field this week.”

Through four games, Big Red’s offense is averaging 337 yards (215 coming on the ground) and 26 points. Its defense allows 218 yards and 18 points an outing.

Senior quarterback Cade Kernahan has thrown for 473 yards and four touchdowns. Senior Jared Roberts leads Big Red with 10 receptions, while fellow senior Aaron Ferguson has grabbed eight Kernahan aerials.

Sophomore Spencer Ostovich has compiled 341 rushing yards to lead Saccoccia’s club. Ostovich has lugged the rock 59 times and scored three touchdowns. Senior Nate McShan has 145 yards on 37 trips.

Junior Rodney James ran for 126 yards before being sidelined with an injury in Week 2 against Dover. He was one of several Big Red starters who missed the New Philadelphia game.

When discussing the health of his squad, Saccoccia simply said, “We’re the same.”

Big Red and Fitch will enter the OHSAA playoffs next week. Steubenville again will compete in Division III, Region 9, while Fitch is part of Division II, Region 5.

Three of the top 10 Division III squads in this week’s AP poll (Chardon, Canfield and Streetsboro) also are part of Region 9. Twenty-seven schools will compete in the regional playoffs, meaning the top five seeds will receive first round byes.

Other teams of note in the region are New Philadelphia, Aurora, Geneva and Akron St. Vincent St. Mary’s. First round pairings will be announced today.

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