By Steve Ruman
This past weekend saw 28 Mahoning Valley high school football teams play their final game of the 2013 season.
For 16 others, the journey is just beginning.
Sunday, the Ohio High School Athletic Association released its pairings for the first round of the playoffs.
Among the 224 qualifiers are a record eight schools from Mahoning County. They are; Austintown Fitch, Poland, Struthers, Cardinal Mooney, Ursuline, South Range, Western Reserve and Lowellville.
Trumbull County will be represented by six schools: Hubbard, Lakeview, Liberty, Brookfield, McDonald and Southington.
Crestview and Wellsville will fly the flag for Columbiana County.
The area will be represented in six of the seven divisions — none of the Division II schools qualified.
Nine of the 16 area qualifiers will host first-round games.
Divisions II, III, IV and VI will play on Fridays at 7:30 p.m.
Divisions I, V and VII will play on Saturdays at 7 p.m.
Coming off of its first 10-0 season, Fitch is the area’s lone representative in Division I. The Falcons’ fourth-place finish in Division I Region 1 gives them the opportunity to host Marysville (7-3). Fitch is making its seventh playoff appearance and third under head coach Phil Annarella.
Hubbard, which also went 10-0, is making its 12th postseason appearance. The Eagles will host Division III Region 9 opponent Marlington (8-2). Also in Region 9, Poland (9-1) will travel to West Geauga (7-3). The Bulldogs, who won a state title in 1999, are making their 13th playoff appearance.
Struthers is returning to the playoffs following a 14-year absence. The Wildcats (8-2) finished second in Division IV Region 11.
“This is a great accomplishment, not just for our players, but for the community,” Struthers coach Curt Kuntz said. “This is a unique, close-knit town which is filled with pride.”
Struthers will host Lakeview (7-3) in a rematch of a Week 2 game won by the Wildcats, 35-14.
Tom Pavlansky’s Bulldogs enter the tournament on a seven-game winning streak.
“We’re in for a fight,” Kuntz said. “Lakeview is always one of the best-coached teams in the area, and they are fundamentally sound in all three phases of the game.”
Following a one-year absence, Mooney (6-4) returns to the playoffs for a Valley-best 26th time. The eight-time state champions finished third in Division IV Region 11 and will host Cleveland John Hay (8-2).
Mooney has won 56 playoff games, third-best in state history. The Cardinals’ eight titles are second to Cleveland St. Ignatius’ 11.
On Sept. 13, Crestview (9-1) hosted Liberty (7-3), with the Rebels prevailing in a shootout, 34-26. The two teams will meet again in New Waterford after finishing second and seventh, respectively, in Division V Region 15.
Crestview is making its sixth straight postseason appearance and 12th overall while Liberty returns for the seventh time.
Despite ending the season by losing two straight and four of its last six games, Ursuline (4-5) claimed the final playoff spot in Division V Region 15. The Irish, who have made 18 postseason appearances resulting in four state titles, will visit Akron Manchester (8-2).
Ursuline was one of two teams to qualify with a losing record.
“With our schedule, and without a league title to play for, every week is like a playoff week for us,” Ursuline coach Larry Kempe said. “We knew we had our work cut out for us, but now we start from scratch.
“Manchester is no stranger to the playoffs,” Kempe said. “They are a very big team. They will be a challenge.”
Having logged its seventh undefeated season under Dan Yeagley, South Range (10-0) returns to the playoffs following a two-year hiatus. The Raiders, one of three area teams to qualify in Division VI Region 19 will host Cuyahoga Heights (6-4).
Also in Region 19, Brookfield (8-2) will host St. Thomas Aquinas. Prior to 2011, the Warriors hadn’t reached the postseason since 1994. They have now qualified in three straight years.
McDonald (7-3) will face perhaps the tallest first-round task among all Valley teams. The Blue Devils earned the eighth spot in Region 19.
Their reward? A date with Kirtland (10-0), which has won 45 consecutive regular season games, and 58 of 60 overall. The Hornets won a state title in 2011, and were state runners-up a year ago.
Half of the qualifying teams in Division VII, Region 23 hail from the Mahoning Valley. Western Reserve (10-0), coming off its second undefeated season in three years, finished atop the pack and will host Garfield Heights Trinity (4-6).
Wellsville (8-2), which ended the season with a 25-8 loss to Western Reserve, finished third in the region and will host Ashland Mapleton (6-4).
Lowellville (6-4) returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The Rockets will have to travel 130 miles to Danville (8-2).
Southington (5-5) is making just its second postseason appearance. The Wildcats, who also qualified in 2001, will visit Norwalk St. Paul (9-1).
“This is huge for everyone involved in the program,” Southington coach Ryan Slone said. “When we came here three years ago, our staff implemented a program which required a lot of hard work. The kids bought into it, and they deserve Week 11.”
Southington lost its regular-season finale, then Slone spent the weekend watching out-of-town scores.
“Our situation was up in the air until late Saturday,” Slone said. “Finally after all the scores were in, I sent out a text to our players saying, ‘Welcome to the playoffs.’ ”
The Inter-Tri County League sent six schools to the playoffs, including four from the lower tier. Meanwhile, the American Division of the All American Conference advanced three of its six members.
For a second straight year, Mineral Ridge missed the tournament by seven-tenths of a point. The Rams finished ninth in Region 23. The tournament will conclude with championship games in Stark County from Dec. 5-7.