All the marbles of the Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division will be in play, and that’s just how Black River’s football team likes it.
The Pirates (5-4, 5-1) take on Keystone (5-4, 4-2) tonight at 7, with Black River sporting eight PAC points to the Wildcats’ seven. The intra-division game is worth two points, meaning the winner takes home the outright division title.
It’s a consolation prize Black River is taking very seriously after essentially being eliminated from Division IV, Region 13 playoff contention following a 7-0 loss to Wellington in Week 7.
“We’ve been working for this all year,” junior right tackle Gabe Eaton said. “We’re just fighting to win PAC. That’s our goal every year. You’ve got to win PAC, you’ve got to win PAC.”
Led by sophomore wide re-ceiver C.J. Conrad (57 receptions, 897 yards, 13 TDs), the Wildcats are seeking their first league championship since 1971, when future Ohio State Buckeye Bob Hyatt ran all over the Inland Conference and led Keystone to a 10-0 record.
The Wildcats are riding a wave of momentum, too, after scoring 12 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning TD with 39 seconds left, to stun Buckeye 15-14 last week.
Keystone is extremely balanced out of the rapidly growing Pistol offense. Junior quarterback Marcus Gunter is 101-for-188 passing for 1,137 yards and an 11-3 TD-INT ratio, while senior tailback Greg Howard has 701 rushing yards and six scores.
The key for Black River’s defense, however, will be containing the dynamic 6-foot-4, 205-pound Conrad, who has five 100-yard games and scored a touchdown in eight.
Conrad even leads the defense with 77 tackles and three interceptions from his safety spot.
“It’s definitely going to be exciting,” Pirates senior cornerback Donatius DeMarco said. “We’ve used one of our tallest kids all week (6-4 David Jeske) to prepare for (Conrad’s) height. It’s going to be a fun time. It’s the last game I’ll ever play.”
The Pirates, who are gunning for their second division title in three seasons, counter with a focused group that has been on a mission since losing to the Dukes. Black River has posted 107 points and 1,099 yards over the past two games thanks to hard-charging running backs Andrew Vaughn (1,437 rushing yards, 16 TDs) and Austin Phillips (836, 11) putting up big numbers behind an improved all-underclassman offensive line.
What has the Pirates feeling extra confident is the weather report. Tonight’s forecast calls for an 80 percent chance of rain and wind gusts of 17 mph, meaning mistake-free ball control will be more important.
That plays right into Black River’s hands, as Cody Elsten has attempted just 39 passes while leading the Pirates to a 5-1 record as starting quarterback.
“We finally formed a group that bonds together,” Eaton said of the offense and, in particular, the line. “We work together and we talk to each other. We just found the right guys.”
Winner-take-all Week 10 games don’t happen every season. The Pirates are well aware of that fact, and are fully prepared to leave it all on the brand-new field at Keystone.
It doesn’t get much better than that for two teams who have nothing else to play for. That holds equally true for Keystone after going 0-10 last season.
“You know what? (Keystone coach) Rob (Clarico) has done a good job,” said Black coach Al Young, who has eight league titles in 22 previous years as coach. “Their sophomore class has been really strong, and there are some quality athletes in that class. They’ve had close games, but they’ve made plays when they’ve had to make plays, and that’s the mark of good coaching.
“It’s going to be a tough football game. It really is.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.