By ryan buck
This week’s football practices across the Mahoning Valley have been a bit colder, a bit windier ... and a bit snowier.
But the Austintown Fitch Falcons don’t mind. In fact, as coach Phil Annarella says:
“That’s a good thing.”
All it means is they are still playing and the increasingly uncomfortable weather signals a longer run in the playoffs.
After dispatching visiting Marysville, 31-21, in a Division I first-round game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates, the Falcons will meet Westerville Central in a regional quarterfinal match up Saturday in Mansfield.
If anything, the practice conditions may make Saturday (game-time temperatures may hit 55 degrees) feel like a walk in the park.
“It’s going to be tough going through this week with the cold, but we have to get past it and overcome it,” said Fitch linebacker Sam Ortz, who registered two sacks and a 50-yard kickoff return in the win over Marysville. “Usually in games, though, it can be 40 degrees out and it feels like 80 to me so there’s not a lot of difference.”
The Falcons (11-0) have not altered their preparations.
“We’ve almost stuck to the exact same schedule,” said Annarella, as he finally retreated into the warmth of his office inside the Fitch athletic building. “It’s just been a little bit tougher because it’s been so much colder. These past couple of days, it’s been pretty cold out there. But they’ve held up all right.”
The cold may be the Falcons’ biggest challenge this week, but Westerville Central’s offense offers a much more daunting foe come Saturday.
The Warhawks average 49 points per game and feature a passing attack the likes of which the Falcons have not seen all season.
Quarterback Jared Drake has thrown for 2,700 yards and 28 touchdowns. Three receivers have accumulated more than 500 yards.
Their numbers are not lost on Ortz and Fitch’s defense.
“We’re more focused on what we need to get done in the secondary,” he said. “More teams we’ve played are run-based and we’re run-based. We’ve got to step it up this week and defend the pass.”
Falcons quarterback Antwan Harris will have to be at his best both running (he gashed Marysville for almost 200 yards) and throwing.
“Guys start keying on [our running game],” Harris said. “They’ll put more guys in the box. So we’ll have to throw it around a little bit. I’m ready.”
“The only difference is you’re just not sure,” Annarella said. “You don’t have the familiarity with them [as you do] with a team that you play year in and year out. You’re not 100-percent sure what to expect, but in all fairness it’s the same for them as it is for us.”