A litle March madness football style.
The Northwest Conference, in perhaps one of the most interesting ways to decide a league champion, will begin its version of tournament football Friday night.
Each NWC team played three league games to open the season in two separate division to determine the seeding for the brackets and after three weeks Spencerville and Columbus Grove posted identical 3-0 records to garner No. 1 seeds in the respective brackets.
Spencerville head coach Chris Sommers said he likes the tournament bracket concept to decide a champion.
“We are extremely excited about it and just the job that the athletic directors and the administrators did in our league,” Sommers said. “I just think it is an amazing idea and John Zerbe, our athletic director, had a hand in it. It’s fun and we are ready to go.”
In typical Bearcat fashion, Spencerville has run its way to its first three victories in the West Division. Spencerville will host Ada in the first round. Other games include Delphos Jefferson traveling to Columbus Grove, Paulding going to Allen East and Bluffton at Crestview.
The Bearcats opened the season with a 35-14 win over Crestview followed a 41-8 victory over rival Delphos Jefferson and a close 26-20 match over Paulding last week.
Spencerville, third overall in total team yards in the NWC, ranks No. 1 in rushing with 990, averaging 330 yards a game.
Sommers said he loves how this year’s team has come together.
“I like the chemistry of the team and that is something we have talked about early in the season,” Sommers said. “We couldn’t control if we were going to play or not but the one thing we could control is how we treated one another and gelled as a team and how we worked and things like that I am most proud of that.”
Sommers added that the seniors have really stepped in their leadership role.
One of those seniors Dalty Prichard who makes a return back behind center after missing last year with an injury brings additional stability to the run-oriented Bearcat offensive attack. As a passer, the Spencerville signal caller is 9 of 18 for 135 yards with one touchdown and interception.
“Dalty has taken off where he left off his sophomore year so we are really happy with him and just the leadership he brings,” Sommers said. “He is the type of guy you want there. When we are in bad situations he keeps their heads up and I can’t say enough about him as a person.”
As always, the Bearcats feature a number of running backs with Gunnar Grigsby leading the way. Grigsby is third in the NWC in rushing with 408 yards and five touchdowns on 72 carries. Ninth in the league and making himself noticed is Dale Smith, who has amassed 232 yards and two touchdowns and is averaging a sparkling 14.5 runs per carry average. DJ Bowens has also been effective and ranked 11th in the league with 176 yards and two touchdowns.
Sommers said the backfield was an area they had to break in a few new guys in and they have responded.
One of the reasons is perhaps the play of the work of the unsung heroes up front.
If you want to run the ball it starts out front,” Sommers said. “We don’t talk about them enough but if you want to run the ball it starts out front and we did break in some new guys in there too and they have done an excellent job.”
Sommers added there is still room for growth in both the backfield and the offensive line but said if they continue to work things will progress by the time the playoffs begin
Defensively, Spencerville is first in the league in total yards allowed (515) and in yards rushing allowed 72.7.
“We really have put a lot of focus in this area even from a year ago,” Sommers said. “We felt we needed to do a few different things and kind of get back to who we are a little bit but then again each year you lose great players and you have to replace them. We feel like we have good players that can come in, some young and some older, and how quick they can catch up. I have been happy with just the way they have been playing.”
Much like Spencerville, Columbus Grove’s defense has played an important role in the team’s undefeated start but unlike the Bearcats the Bulldogs have a more balanced offensive approach.
Columbus Grove opened the year with a 41-7 win over Bluffton, followed by a 52-18 victory over Ada and narrowly defeated Allen East 30-21 last week.
Columbus Grove head coach Andy Schafer said the early season success is attributed to the team’s ability to perform in all three phases of football. Even though a lot of things have been going right for the Bulldogs, Schafer added there is still room for improvement especially after the nine-point win over Allen East.
“I think last week we weren’t as sharp on all three phases as we had been I the first two games but we played a better opponent in Allen East,” Schafer said. “They are a really, really good football team and gave us a great fight.
Offensively, Schafer said he wants to be as balanced as he can with the team.
Bulldog quarterback Blake Reynolds headlines the offense but he shares the spotlight with a number of his teammates.
Through the air, Reynolds is 28 of 48 for 527 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. On the ground, the senior standout has 149 yards and five touchdowns on 24 carries.
“I think a lot of people talk about Blake and the passing yards he has put up in the last four years but really I thought his biggest weapon is his legs especially in a situation where it is a third down or fourth down or closer to the goal line,” Schafer said. “He has a tendency of finding that extra gear to extend the play or get in the end zone.”
Receiver Gabe Clement has been Reynolds’ primary target with 11 catches for 218 yards and two touchdowns and Jacksen Schroeder has hauled in five catches for 124 yards and one touchdown. Jon Banal has gotten into the mix with seven catches for 110 yards and one touchdown.
Clement has also been a force on punt returns with 137 yards and two touchdowns on four attempts,
Leading the ground game is Colin Metzger who ranks sixth in the NWC with 289 yards and four touchdowns on 54 carries.
Columbus Grove is sixth in the league in average yards rushing with 126 a game and third in the league in passing with 540.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are third in yards allowed (762) and second in yards rushing allowed (336). Columbus Grove has recorded three interceptions on the year.
“I so glad we had the Allen East game because it exposed a lot of the stuff we weren’t good at,” Schafer said. “Honestly I attributed it to the fundamentals. We went back in practice yesterday we spent an hour and a half doing chalk talk stuff on a white board and really going back to the basics.”
As the Bulldogs enter the tournament, Schafer, like his Spencerville counterpart, said he believes the tournament is a good idea and it helps his team prepare for the postseason in week seven.
Schafer admits that when he heard there was going to be a six-game schedule he told his athletic director, Terry Schnipke, to schedule Lima Central Catholic, Marion Local and Coldwater.
“I wanted all the big dogs so we could prepare for the tournament and then a couple of days later he said we have this idea of running the NWC as a tournament and have a conference championship and as soon as I heard it I was all in.”
Schafer added that he feels that it is beneficial for the players to strive for a league title and this also has the possible benefit of improving as a team prior to the postseason because if you keep winning the team continues to play better competition.
“Every game matters and as soon as you lose you’ve lost it,” Schafer said. “There is no way of winning a conference title. There is no shares so for us it is every game matters and what better situation can you ask put your kids in right before the state tournament where again every game matters.”