BIDWELL, Ohio — It hasn’t been flashy or even dominant, but it does follow one of the oldest monikers associated with Raider football.
Just win, baby.
As it ventures into its first-ever OHSAA playoff game Friday night at Zane Trace, the River Valley football program has practically re-written every record in the school’s 24 years of existence.
RVHS (7-3) had never won more than six games in any season since opening its doors in the fall of 1992, nor had it posted a winning record on the gridiron since the 2003 campaign.
A lot, however, has changed for the Silver and Black during the 2015 season, and most of it can be attributed to a long-term plan coming to fruition.
When Jerrod Sparling — who played football at Ohio University under current Bobcats coach Frank Solich — accepted the RVHS job in 2011, he inherited a program that had only 10 wins in its previous seven campaigns.
And during those seven prior seasons, the Raiders surrendered at least 300 points in six of them — as well as allowing at least 30 points defensively in 48 of those 70 contests.
Sparling’s first three years didn’t fare much better as RVHS mustered just five wins and gave up 30-or-more points in 21 of those 30 contests. The first big breakthrough, however, came last fall when the Raiders went 5-5 while surrendering only 276 points on the season — their lowest total in a decade.
This year’s historical breakthrough can easily be attributed to a defense that has surrendered only 12 points per game and includes zero nights of allowing 30 points. In fact, no opponent has managed more than 26 points (Meigs) in any one game against the Silver and Black this fall.
The Raiders have three shutouts this season, which includes a 26-0 win over fellow playoff qualifier Rock Hill in Week 1. You’d have to go back to the 2002 finale to find River Valley’s previous three shutouts before this year.
Needless to say, a lot has suddenly changed — and for the better.
“Getting River Valley into the playoffs is honestly the greatest accomplishment I have ever had in my football career, either as a player or as a coach. To be where we are right now is truly amazing considering where we were when I started here five years ago,” Sparling said. “We have endured some really hard times in trying to get this place first stable, then competitive, and then into a winner. It really is a testament to all of our people here at River Valley, because you win with good people.”
Thirty members of the 41-man preseason roster were on the team in 2014, and there were also 15 seniors with multiple seasons of playing experience leading the way. There was also the familiarity in playing in the same system, under the same coaches, during the last five seasons.
In other words, a good portion of the RVHS squad already had knowledge of what it took to be collectively successful on Friday nights. This weekend will honestly be no different, except for maybe the new environment.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have been a part of teams that have been in the playoffs in the past, so I’ve been relying on those experiences and I’ve contacted other close people for advice. The thing I’m telling my guys is that when the ball gets kicked off, it’s just like any other big football game … and we have played in a lot of big football games this year,” Sparling said. “But the other side, and this is a slippery slope, is that playoff football is different. There are so many more emotions involved throughout the week and on game day, especially in the first playoff game. You have to be able to handle those emotions properly or you will come out flat, and flat football teams lose in the first round.”
The Raiders are averaging 25.3 points per game and posted a season-high 57 points in a Week 3 shutout at Eastern. RVHS is plus-1 in turnover differential, has 100 more total yards of offense (2,631-2,531) than its opponents, and also has a slim 144-139 advantage in first downs this fall.
River Valley is averaging 122 yards on the ground per game while putting up close to 142 yards through the air offensively. Conversely, the RVHS defense is surrendering 158 yards per game on the ground and 95 yards in the air.
The Silver and Black faced three playoff qualifiers during the regular season, going 1-2 in those contests after losses to Alexander (22-12) and Shadyside (14-7). The Raiders are also 4-1 in road games this season.
Zane Trace, on the other hand, is a perfect 5-0 at home this year and has won its last nine home contests — as well as 15 straight decisions overall. The second-seeded Pioneers (10-0) will be aiming for the program’s first-ever postseason victory in six appearances, as ZTHS previously made the playoffs in 2001, 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2013.
The Red and Blue are averaging 39.7 points per game offensively and have allowed just 13.9 points defensively this fall en route to winning the Scioto Valley Conference championship outright. ZTHS is also 1-0 this season against playoff qualifiers after defeating Paint Valley 15-8 in Week 6.
Like RVHS, the Pioneers also have three shutouts on the season — including a season-best 55-0 blanking of Unioto in Week 4. Zane Trace’s opponents combined for a 42-58 overall record, which was just slightly off of the Raiders’ 42-57 strength of schedule.
The Pioneers are averaging roughly 370 yards of total offense per night, which includes a heavy rushing attack that produces nearly 259 yards per contest. ZTHS has five different players with at least 250 rushing yards on the season, with seniors Trey Davis (5-9, 170) and Joel Dunkle (5-8, 165) leading that charge with 645 yards and 623 yards respectively.
Dunkle and junior Austin Harris (5-10, 170) also give the Pioneers a dual-option at the quarterback position. Dunkle is 31-of-60 passing for 600 yards, six TDs and three interceptions, while Harris is 30-of-48 passing for 504 yards, seven scores and one pick.
Senior Pierce Mowery (6-2, 180) leads the wideouts with 26 catches for 473 yards and seven scores, while senior Timothy Gibson (6-1, 190) also has 19 grabs for 310 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior Truman Love (6-1, 225) leads the defense with 58 tackles and 6.5 sacks, while junior Alden Place (6-3, 210) has a team-best 13 sacks to go along with 58 tackles.
“Zane Trace is obviously well-deserving of its ranking and has earned the right to have a home game,” Sparling said of his upcoming opponent. “They are extremely well-coached and have some really explosive football players at the skill positions to go along with great football players on the first level of both their offense and defense. From a personnel standpoint, we have got our work cut out for us.”
The Pioneers may have the home-field advantage this weekend, but the seventh-seeded Raiders will likely have a majority of the sentimental support in southeastern Ohio as each program chases its first-ever Week 11 victory.
Sparling is hoping that a sea of Silver and Black is waiting for his troops when they leave the locker room Friday night. As he noted, it’ll just add that much more to this historic moment.
“Having the support of your school and community is such a powerful thing, and we feel so honored that we have the chance to represent our school, community, and Gallia County in general,” Sparling said. “I know as a player, there was no greater feeling than running out of the tunnel and seeing your community behind you, cheering you along the way. I am so excited for my boys because they will get to experience that Friday night. On Friday night, we are all Raiders … and what a great time it will be to be a Raider.”
The Raiders and Pioneers will kick off their Division V, Region 17 quarterfinal at 7:30 p.m. Friday night at Zane Trace High School in Kinnikinnick, just northeast of Chillicothe in Ross County.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.