By CHRIS EASTERLING
Independent sports editor
There was a point early this season where a playoff game wasn’t anywhere close to a guarantee for Black River. As for a home first-round playoff game, that would’ve been far-fetched around the same time the Pirates were closing out the nonleague portion of the schedule.
Three weeks into the season, Black River found itself making the quiet bus trip back home from Manchester, where it had been blitzed by the Panthers 56-13. It was the second week in a row the Pirates were on the short end of a lopsided score — having lost to Northwestern the previous week 35-12 — and they found themselves at a crossroads.
At 1-2, they could pick themselves up by their bootstraps and power forward. Or, they could continue down the path they found themselves on at that point.
The choice? Well, Black River finds itself at home tonight, not because its season is over, but because it will be hosting Fairless in a Division V first-round playoff game.
“It’s no secret we went up to Manchester and just got our rear ends handed to us,” veteran Pirates head coach Al Young said. “We had to do a lot of searching after that. No, it hasn’t been one specific turnaround, because we’ve played some tough teams building up to it. It was kind of gradual climb back into the seat of being a contender. Once we got that, we got confidence playing our league games and were able to come away with the championship.”
After those back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Manchester — both which ended up being playoff teams — Black River won six in a row to capture a piece of the Premier Athletic Conference’s River Division championship. The Pirates, at 7-3, were forced to share the title after losing in their regular-season finale to Keystone last week.
Still, Young admits it was an impressive turnaround his team pulled off after the nonleague struggles. And it was a turnaround he credits to the players, especially the 16-player senior class.
“If you’re in it long enough, you’re going to have your downfalls,” Young said. “It’s the guys, the kids who can be resilient and you get them to bounce back. If you’ve got kids who can do that, you can play tough people on your schedule, you can get whacked and knocked down and your kids are going to rally and get you back fired up and going.
“Those kids have done an excellent job of it. We’ve had some tough games, didn’t play well early on. They kind of rallied the troops there and have done a wonderful job for us.”
While it has certainly been a team effort for Black River to get to where it has gotten, there has been one player who had captured much of the spotlight because of his individual accomplishments. Senior Andrew Vaughn is closing out his Pirates career in style, starting with a rushing performance that has him sitting at the top of Medina County’s all-time rushing list.
Vaughn, at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, has rushed for 2,203 yards and 26 touchdowns this season to give him almost 5,950 yards for his career. He has also been Black River’s top defensive performer with 27 solo tackles, 14 assists, 4.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and a caused fumble.
“He’s just a heck of a player, has been for a long time here,” Young said. “I’ve said it all along, I’m just glad he’s on our side. He’s just a player; the kid’s just a great football player. He plays great defense, plays great offense. He’s a great kid and he deserves everything he gets.”
He hasn’t been the only player for Black River on either side of the ball. David Bell is also closing in on 1,000 yards rushing out of the Pirates’ wing-T offense, while Colin Filak is averaging nearly five yards a carry on 112 attempts and senior Brock Waltz has brought a steadying influence to the quarterback position.
Meanwhile, on defense, Waltz and Chris Kane have been stalwarts off the edge of the defensive line with a combined 12 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. The linebackers, Pat McIntyre and Brett Nagy, have added another 12 combined tackles for loss, four fumbles caused and five fumble recoveries.
And the reward for all of them, especially the seniors such as Vaughn, Waltz, Nagy, McIntyre and Kane, is at least one more game.
“We have excellent seniors in our class,” Young said. “They’re great kids and they’re really good leaders, good students. It’s been a lot of fun for them, watching them come up through the ranks. They’ve had a lot of success, and it’s a great way for them to cap off their careers.”
Reach Chris at 330-775-1128 or email@example.com.
On Twitter: @ceasterlingINDE