Blue Devils to be tested by unbeaten Bulldogs

Carey's Ethan Beringer looks to throw during the first half of the the Division VI regional semifinal against Hillsdale at Willard on Friday, November 15, 2019. Jonathon Bird

It’s been a long time since either’s been this far in the postseason. And for East Knox, it’s been a long time since just reaching the playoffs.

But it’s the present, not the past, the teams will focus on tonight at Marion Harding in a 7 p.m. Division VI regional final

“We’ve just got to stay focused on what we do, what got us here and what we’ve got to do in order to be successful on the game field and not allow the other things to detract from our focus on what we have to accomplish,” East Knox coach Cody Reese said.

His Bulldogs enter 12-0 and are in the playoffs for the first time since going 10-2 in 2005. Tonight is also the first regional final appearance for them since 1999.

Getting here required beating both Ashland Crestview and Seneca East 21-20, with last week’s win over Seneca East involving overcoming a 20-0 halftime deficit. Until the playoffs, the closest game the Bulldogs took part in was a 33-14 win in Week 3 against River View.

“I think I’m getting more gray-haired as time goes on,” Reese said with a laugh. “Close games, and that’s something we didn’t have, in the regular season, a whole lot of. Proud of our boys for how hard they’re fighting and how hard they’re playing together. That’s what’s helped them overcome these last couple weeks.

“We’ve been fortunate to walk away victorious from two good football teams,” he said. “Going into this week with Carey, it’s certainly not going to be any easier, that’s for sure.”

The Blue Devils (7-5), the last remaining Northern 10 Athletic Conference team in the playoffs, reached their first regional final since 1994 in a different manner.

They started 0-3 before slowly getting on track. A 26-20 overtime win against Seneca East in Week 7 gave them a boost in playoff points and helped them close out the regular season on a 3-1 run.

Their 5-5 regular season mark — three one-score losses, 2-3 mark against playoff-bound foes — gave them the region’s eighth seed, and the Blue Devils promptly beat Western Reserve in a 50-41 shootout before outscrapping Hillsdale 7-0.

Carey coach Jonathon Mershman said that’s all been great preparation for tonight.

“We did that all year. We played Leipsic tough (28-20 loss). We played Galion (35-6 loss), we played all these games, and we’ve been highs and lows, and had game-winning drives and had game-winning drives that didn’t go our way,” he said. “We’ve been though it all this year, and I think we are well-tested, and whatever game happens, I think we can mentally be prepared for it.”

They have a lot to be prepared for tonight.

East Knox’s Caleb Gallwitz ran for 2,253 yards and 41 touchdowns during the regular season while quarterback Kadden Lester threw for 1,639 yards and another 20 TDs.

Gage Steinmetz hauled in 49 passes for 674 yards and seven TDs in the regular season, with Cade Leach (16-260, 4 TDs), Braden Kannady (14-310, 4 TDs) and Weston Melick (19-236, 2 TDs) adding receiving depth.

Players have also shined on defense.

Dawson David registered 101 1/2 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and six sacks for the Bulldogs in the first 10 games, with Weston Melick adding 70 1/2 stops and six tackles for loss.

Ian Toller backed them with five sacks in the regular season, Kannady picked off four passes and Shaen Knepp and Raymond Snyder both had three interceptions.

The Bulldogs picked off 12 passes in the regular season while only recovering two of the five fumbles they forced, but Mershman said they thrived on turnovers once the playoffs began.

“They’re really solid on offense, they’ve got a nice, solid running back and they’ve got a nice, solid quarterback and a couple of good receivers,” Mershman said. “Defensively, they’re flying all over the place and making plays. They’re ripping the ball out, stripping it, punching it, trying to get fumbles. And, you know, you look at their Ashland Crestview game and you look at their Seneca East game, they got a lot of fumbles in those games.

“Those turnovers are huge, so we’re gonna have to really hold onto the ball and we’re gonna try to create turnovers ourselves, on defense,” he said. “They’re a solid, well-coached team, and it looks like they’ve got a bunch seniors out there playing and playing hard.”

Reese said he sees a lot of the same from Carey.

“They’re a disciplined team. They play extremely hard for four quarters of football. Very physical up front, just across the board — 11 guys on the field, 11 physical players,” he said. “They can bust one for a long play for a touchdown on any given play. Really good at what they do. They’re just really aggressive players. That’s a recipe for a really good football team, and that’s what you’ll find in Carey.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re disciplined and ready to get after it, and sustain drives and be really disciplined on the defensive side of the ball if we want to be successful,” Reese said.

Carey quarterback Ethan Beringer leads the varied attack, throwing for 1,445 yards and seven touchdowns so far while also running for 664 yards and an other TD.

“He’s run the ball really well for us, and he’s thrown the ball really well for us all year, really. But we’ve spread it out, all throughout the year,” Mershman said. “You look at, ‘hey, this guy had three touchdowns, now, this week, this guy has it.’ We just kinda go into the game, and whatever the gameplan dictates, kinda dictates who’s being successful. The last couple weeks, they haven’t really focused on Beringer, so we let him go. We’ll see how this week dictates.”

Plenty of other Blue Devils provide running options.

Reece Billock has 450 yards and nine TDs and Connor Williams has run for 370 yards and seven scores, with Brady Curlis (246 yards, 3 TDs), Derek Lonsway (239 yards, 2 TDs) and Bryce Conti (129 yards, 1 TD) also figuring in.

Cade Crawford tops the receiving corps with 42 grabs, 531 yards and five touchdowns. Billock (22-229), Ian Yeater (16-302, 1 TD), Curlis (16-182) and Conti (11-155, 1 TD) have provided depth.

Connor also tops the defense with 138 tackles and 31 tackles for loss. Lonsway adds 82 tackles, Cameron Pahl has 70 stops, Landen Kemerley has 11 tackles for a loss and a playoff fumble return for a score, Trennen Stoll has 10 tackles for a loss and Conti has picked off eight passes.

“Obviously they (Carey) have good athletes. Offensive and defensive lines are strong, they’re linebacking corps is aggressive and the defensive backs do a great job of covering up receivers,” Reece said. “We’ve just got to see, come game night, what they’re giving us on defense; offensively, what they’re trying to do to us and just go from there.

“They’re pretty solid across the board and extremely physical, and when you’re physical, that just takes everything up to another level,” he said. “We’ve just got to make sure that we’re prepared to do what we can based off what they give us.”