By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
Three weeks ago, when Warren Harding High began a brutal stretch against Ursuline, Cleveland St. Ignatius and Massillon, Raiders coach Thom McDaniels said his team had no margin for error if it wanted to stay in the playoff race.
Turns out, he wasn't just saying that. Despite winning all three, Harding (6-2) dropped from fifth to seventh in the Division I, Region 1 computer ratings.
"We have to win out to get in," McDaniels said. "I guess that shows I know math."
The Raiders play host to The Rayen School on Friday at Mollenkopf Stadium in a matchup of two teams fighting for their playoff lives.
The Tigers have won seven straight games after an opening loss to Canfield, but are just 10th in Div. II, Region 7.
"We were kind of hoping we'd be ranked better than 10th," said Rayen coach Brian Shaner, whose team plays at Lake in the regular-season finale. "But we've got our playoff future in our hands and that's all you can ask for."
Rayen was in a similar situation last year, needing to beat Steubenville in Week 10 to make the postseason. The Tigers lost that game, 34-12, and finished 10th in Region 7. (The top eight make the playoffs.) Big Red went on to win the Div. III state title.
Friday's game is just as important for Rayen.
And just as difficult.
"It's going to be an uphill battle, but our kids are embracing the challenge," Shaner said. "We get a chance to play in front of a local crowd against one of the best teams in the area. We're really looking forward to it."
The Raiders are led by senior running back Dan Herron, an Ohio State recruit who has rushed 179 times for 832 yards and eight TDs.
Quarterback Matt Straniak, one of four QBs to see time for the Raiders this season, has completed 37-of-63 passes for 510 yards and six TDs. His main target is Chris Rucker, who has 25 receptions for 404 yards.
Harding had problems with turnovers in losses to Cleveland Glenville and Mooney, but have played better in recent weeks.
Winning is fun
"When we don't turn it over, we're good enough on defense and special teams to win," McDaniels said. "I'm sort of a curmudgeon in that you can't always tell after the game whether we've won or lost. My wife says I lack a personality. But it's been more fun the past few weeks and that's because we're winning."
Rayen is led by junior quarterback Sal Battles, who has thrown for 481 yards and five TDs and rushed for 627 yards and 12 TDs. Junior RB Gary Thornton has 131 carries for 811 yards and eight TDs.
"I think we're playing good football," Shaner said. "Our defense is playing phenomenal and that's definitely the strength of our team."
Accepting a challenge
Rayen, which made its only playoff appearance in 1985, has already won its second straight City Series title. The fact that the Tigers have even scheduled Harding shows how far the program has progressed in four years under Shaner.
"I have an awful lot of respect for Brian and the job he's done," said McDaniels, who has led the Raiders to the playoffs in four of his previous six seasons. "They've got an excellent football team."
McDaniels also has respect for any team that's willing to play a difficult non-conference opponent. Too many teams would rather finish 10-0, "and get their doors blown off in the second round of the playoffs," McDaniels said.
"I give Brian credit because he's willing to schedule this game," he said. "Other than Ursuline and Mooney, there aren't many teams willing to do that and I think that's a weakness about the football in this area. I've always had a great regard for it, but too many teams are unwilling to schedule tough games all too often."