Big Red looks for fourth state title Friday night

STEUBENVILLE — Reno Saccoccia called playing in an Ohio football championship game “a great experience.” Now he hopes his Big Red will “make it a great memory.”

“Playing in the finals no matter where the game is actually played is a great experience,” the veteran Steubenville coach said. “Now, we have to make it a great memory.

“Last year was a great experience, but when you think back, you tend to think about plays you could have made to change the game, you don’t think about the plays you made.”

Steubenville will be gunning for its fourth state title when it collides with Columbus Bishop Hartley on Friday in the Division IV finale. The rematch (Hartley earned a 31-28 victory a year ago) will start at 3 p.m. inside Ohio Stadium.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Saccoccia said. “Plus, it’s a great lesson to be learned — hard work, persistence and stick-to-itiveness pay off. Those things paid big dividends for us this year.

“We have right now is a great opportunity. It’s not always the best team in the race that wins the game. It’s who the best team is for 48 minutes. The team that prepares the best and plays the best for 48 minutes usually comes out on top.”

Big Red, 13-1, will board chartered buses early Friday for the trip to Columbus. Hartley, obviously, has the upper hand in the battle of geography.

“We’re only about 15 minutes from the stadium,” Hartley coach Brad Burchfield pointed out. “Last year, we arrived early and watched the second half of the game before. We were able to get a little feel for the stadium. That helped a lot.

“Our kids are pretty well grounded. They’re not going to get too excited. They certainly are taking this opportunity for granted. But it’s just the kind of group we have — no moment is too big or too small for them.”

One thing Big Red and Hartley have in common is this: They both improved following losses.

“Our season definitely has been better after our loss to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary,” Saccoccia noted. “As a team after you lose, there are two things that can happen — you either get better or you pack it in.

“We learned a good lesson from our loss. It definitely helped us for the remainder of the season.”

Burchfield stressed his Hawks “learned a lot about ourselves” in their season opening loss to always-strong Toledo Central Catholic.

“It was a great game, back and forth the entire game,” he said. “We had a heavyweight title fight right out of the game. We got better because of that.”

One common theme for both teams during practices leading up to the rematch is this — improvement.

“Monday and Tuesday was all about us and what we need to do to get better, what we need to do to win the game,” Saccoccia stressed. “On Wednesday and Thursday, we work on how to slow down Hartley’s offense and penetrate their defense.

“We have improved and evidently, we’ve improved more than I thought. I really thought our rate of improvement would have been quicker. I still don’t think we are as good as we can be -maybe we’ll be this week. We still have a lot more to give and a lot more to learn. There’s still more room for improvement.”

Burchfield pointed out his Hawks still have “areas where we need to improve,”

“We’ll continue to work in practice this week,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting to prepare this week.”

The familiarity factor is drawing some attention this week but neither coach is giving it much thought.

“Hartley is the same as last year but different,” said Saccoccia. “They have the same philosophy but a different type of players. They have another good tailback (Marquette Dixon) but a different kind of tailback. The quarterback (Jake Ruby) is the same but better. He’s very underrated as a passer.

“Everyone looks at their size but they also have skill. Their tailback has added more speed to the offense, that’s allowed them to open up the game a little more. They still want to pound it inside and play power football but they also have a better outside game.

“So it’s the same team, the same coaches and basically the same philosophy. The talent, however, is a little different. We’re a different type of team this year and we’ll need a different type of success against Hartley.”

Hartley’s Burchfield isn’t sure if the “familiarity helps or not.”

“We know how they wanted to attack us last year and we can prepare our kids for that,” he said. “Having familiarity and stopping them (Big Red) are two different things, however.”

For Saccoccia, the key to Friday’s championship game is “the same as last week.”

“Our players have to trust the game plan the coaches give them and the coaches have to trust the players will executive the game plan,” he stressed. “We’ll have a good plan and I trust the players will execute it.”

Big Red is in the playoffs for the 29th time and 16th consecutive season. Steubenville now sports a 61-23 post-season record. Hartley, which will be the home on Friday, has a 36-11 playoff mark. The Hawks reached the playoffs for the 15th time.