SIDNEY — There’s playing a tough opponent, and there’s playing a three-time defending state champion.
Sidney played several tough opponents in regular season in 8- and 9-win teams like St. Marys, Bellefontaine and Troy. But the Yellow Jackets’ opponent in a Division II, Region 8 semifinal on Friday is another level of tough.
Sidney (10-1) will face Cincinnati La Salle (9-2) in a regional semifinal on Friday at Miamisburg’s Holland Field. The Lancers have won 16 consecutive playoff games, including the last three Division II state finals.
“It’s the best team we’re going to play all year, without a doubt,” Sidney coach Adam Doenges said. “It’s by far the best defense we’re going to face, and their special teams is unbelievably good. It’s the first team we’re going to play all year that is pretty much strictly two-platoon. Their kids just practice on one side of the ball, and it shows. They’re very, very good at what they do.”
Senior receiver Kelton Stockton said La Salle’s success isn’t intimidating. And with the offensive firepower the Yellow Jackets have shown this season, there’s little reason to be intimidated by anyone.
The Yellow Jackets were second of all 20 Greater Western Ohio Conference teams in average yards (472) and points (41.2) per game.
“We know we can move the ball, and it’s just a matter of playing with confidence and taking care of the ball,” Stockton said. “If we come out and do our stuff, we shouldn’t have too hard of a time (moving the ball).”
The one half Sidney’s offense struggled in regular season came in Week 8 against Troy, which lost a first-round playoff game to Cincinnati Anderson last Friday. Anderson will face Cincinnati Winton Woods in Friday’s other Region 8 semifinal.
Sidney struggled to move the ball in the first half against Troy and committed three turnovers. The Yellow Jackets scored all three of their touchdowns in the second half of the 48-21 loss, which Stockton said was a learning experience for the team.
“We made a lot of mistakes and weren’t playing with confidence,” Stockton said. “It was really just playing with confidence in the second half that was the biggest difference. Troy’s similar to La Salle’s defense; they have really good linebackers like La Salle. It’s a challenge, but I think we’re prepared.”
The Lancers’ defense has allowed an average of 218 yards and 9.4 points per game, the best in both categories in the perennially strong Greater Catholic League South Division. La Salle grabbed nine interceptions in regular season (two of which were returned for touchdowns) and recovered five fumbles.
“They have a really good defense,” Stockton said. “They have a freshman corner (Shane McNally) that’s really good, and their other corner is really good. They have two very good safeties. We’ve been practicing hard for it all week. We’ll come out and see what we can do.”
McNally accounted for two of La Salle’s five turnovers in a 45-10 win over Harrison in a regional quarterfinal last Friday. McNally grabbed two interceptions, one of which he returned over 100 yards for a touchdown.
The Yellow Jackets had five total turnovers against Troy, and Doenges said that’s something they can’t do against the Lancers.
“They play really, really good football,” Doenges said. “We’re going to have to continue to get better this week. We can’t make a whole lot of mistakes.
“It’s kind of like playing Troy, probably just with better athletes. Troy doesn’t beat themselves a whole lot on offense, and La Salle does a really good job of playing the field position game, and they let their defense control it. This is a very sound football team that’s been here before.”
Doenges said La Salle runs a 3-4 defensive scheme and is anchored by its linebacking corps, which is led by Jarred Uran. Uran, who is receiving interest from some Big Ten and MAC schools, has recorded 95 tackles and three sacks.
“They give you a variety of looks,” Doenges said. “They’re going to show blitz and then not go, and they do a nice job of mixing things up, moving some guys around. They do it with four linebackers that are unbelievably good. That’s what they base their defense off of. Their three down lineman are pretty good, and same thing with the secondary. But those four linebackers can play a variety of positions. They can run and stop the run and drop into pass coverage if they have to.”
Sidney’s been able to move the ball through both running and passing.
Senior Isaiah Bowser has been the team’s go-to option. He’s racked up 2,617 yards and 29 rushing touchdowns in addition to 340 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Andre Gordon has thrown for 1,546 yards and 18 touchdowns against three interceptions and has run for 682 yards and 13 touchdowns. Four receivers other than Bowser have over 200 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
Doenges said he’s seen progress on offense since the Troy loss, particularly from Gordon.
“He’s done a really good job,” Doenges said. “He made the comment the other day, saying he feels better physically than he has all year. And I said, ‘You think that has anything to do with since the Troy game, you’ve been throwing the ball away or running out-of-bounds?’ He was like, ‘Yeah.’ So he’s learned some lessons from that, not forcing things. It’s okay to throw the ball away if nothing’s there and live to see another down.
“Offensively, I think we learned that we can’t always score every single time… We just need to be patient. I’m excited to see what our kids are going to do against a top-level defense.”
La Salle averages 287 yards and 19.6 points per game on offense. Senior quarterback Griffin Merritt has thrown for 1,750 yards and 10 touchdowns and has run for 306 yards and six TDs. Running back Cameron Porter has rushed for 767 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Lancers’ leading receiver is senior tight end Josh Whyle. Whyle, who is committed to Cincinnati, has 42 receptions for 515 yards and four touchdowns to his credit.
Contact Bryant Billing at (937) 538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter.