AKRON — The tradition of Massillon football is impossible to ignore.
The Tigers are one of the most respected programs in the country with 23 state titles and nine national crowns in the pre-playoff era (1972). They also have 21 postseason appearances, three runner-up trophies, hoards of NFL players and a rabid fan base.
Tradition doesn’t win games alone, though, and that’s the approach top-seeded Highland (11-0) will take into tonight’s Division II, Region 4 semifinal at the University of Akron’s InfoCision Stadium-Summa Field.
“It’s always exciting playing against these guys,” linebacker James Friedl said. “It’s Massillon, their reputation and their history. It’s going to be a good game.”
Fourth-seeded Massillon (9-2) features a college-sized offensive line, D-I recruits Reggie Rogers (multiple offers) and Marcus Whitfield (Toledo) at wide receiver and the most touted freshman quarterback in the country in 6-foot-3, 200-pounder Danny Clark.
Due to penalties (57.3 yards per game) and turnovers (22), the Tigers have been inconsistent. They barely defeated 5-5 GlenOak (23-20 in 3 overtimes) and 2-8 Firestone (28-14) before crushing then-undefeated archrival Canton McKinley 34-7, and their losses are to undefeated Austintown Fitch (30-27) and St. Vincent-St. Mary (28-23).
Roller coaster aside, Massillon is big, fast and talented. This doesn’t overwhelm the Hornets in the least after scrimmaging still-alive Brecksville (10-1) and Kirtland (11-0), defeating Wadsworth (9-2) and Nordonia (8-3) in the regular season and dispatching Avon Lake (8-3) in the first round last week.
“We’re going to treat it like a normal game,” safety Collin Paich said. “We’re going to come out there and play our butts off.”
Coach Jason Hall’s Tigers implement a run-first pistol offense and use play-action with Clark (1,481 passing yards, 16 TDs) to Rogers (32 receptions, 691 yards, 10 TDs), Whitfield (30, 444, 4) and Beau Huffman (16, 257, 2). The offensive line will be missing starters Nathaniel Devers (6-5, 280 pounds, Cincinnati recruit) and Ronnie Humphrey (6-1, 260), but still averages 6-3, 270 against a Highland front of Myles Houska, Tyler Frederick, Nick Corvo and Nick Haas that has a mean of 226 pounds.
The running backs are slasher Lyron Wilson (1,199 yards, 9 TDs) and bruiser J.D. Crabtree (91, 645, 11). Both will figure large into the game plan because Massillon runs the ball 70 percent of the time.
“They run a lot of different things, and we’ve spent a lot of time preparing for them,” Friedl said.
Defensively, Massillon doesn’t have overwhelming size but, like Highland, flies to the ball with precision. Ends Crabtree (55 tackles, 11½ for loss) and Malik Dudley (36, 9) use speed to free up blockers for linebackers Danny Robinson (70 tackles, 10 for loss) and Devin Ingram (team-high 87, 7.5).
While cornerback Saive Isles has six interceptions, Massillon will be geared up to slow down Highland’s successful read-option attack of quarterback Bruce Kinsey (2,713 yards total offense, 31 TDs) and running back Alex Harris (1,272 rushing yards, 18 TDs).
The Hornets offensive line is aware of the task at hand. It must keep Kinsey upright so he can sling the ball to receivers Cory Moncol (50 receptions, 777 yards, 5 TDs), Coltin Kinsey (40, 530, 9) and Paich (16, 237, 4).
“They’re big and they have a lot of speed. They’re good all-around,” tackle Tyler Gienger said. “You’re not going to see any bad teams at this point in the playoffs.”
The opponent will be formidable. So, too, will the atmosphere, as the rumor flying around Stark County is 30,000-seat Infocision Stadium-Summa Field could reach half-capacity. By comparison, many of the state championship games next month will fail to draw 10,000.
If that holds true, the game will be doubly treasured by the boys from Granger, Hinckley and Sharon Townships for decades to come.
“Whether we win or lose, this is going to be a huge game,” Gienger said. “We are playing at Akron. It’s huge. I’ll probably never have a chance like this again in my life.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.