COLUMBUS GROVE — If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught high school athletes anything it is that nothing can be taken for granted and seniors on Columbus Grove understand that better than anyone.
As juniors on the basketball and wrestling teams, the Bulldogs watched a potential shot at state titles taken away from them last season and because of this these seniors on the football team have carried over a winning attitude that has resulted in an undefeated season and a chance to make it to the regional finals.
The Bulldogs travel to Archbold in the Division VI Region 22 semifinal at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Senior Blake Reynolds, who was a member of the basketball team that went undefeated and was heading to the regional finals before the pandemic eliminated that possibility said the seniors on this team lead because they understand nothing is guaranteed.
“We are a pretty tight knit group because we have been playing together since we were young, and it especially helps that a lot of us play basketball too so we know what it is like to be in the tournament and making it to regional finals and everything going downhill after that,” said the Bulldog signal caller. “It’s huge because we know it can go downhill real fast so we just have to play every game like it is your last.”
An example of that came last week when Grove made a fourth quarter comeback to beat Tinora when Reynolds drove the team for the winning score and then on defense, another senior, Gunner King came up with a key sack to secure the victory.
To show you the type of senior leadership there is on the team, Reynolds talks about what happened in the huddle prior to what would turn out to be the winning drive.
“In the huddle I’ll go in there and say ‘I promise you we will go down there and score’ but I feel like there is no need for me to say that because I’m in the huddle and looking at everyone and they act like it is just another day and not acting like we are six points down with a minute left,” Reynolds added.
Ezra Jones, who plays on the offensive line and a linebacker on defense, echoes his classmate’s sentiments.
“We always have a chip on our shoulder,” Jones said. “We remember losing multiple times. and we never won the NWC outright until this year so being undisputed champions is awesome. We are carried this mentality throughout the season honestly. We are hungry but we are not going to get ahead of ourselves. We don’t look ahead of ourselves or into the future and right now our focus is on Archbold.”
Bulldog head coach Andy Schafer has watched these seniors develop into winners and leaders from midget football to junior high and said he recognized a lot of potential in this group.
“They are a special class and I think it goes back that the kids don’t want something taken away from them,” Schafer said. “They had that experience in basketball and in wrestling. They like to have the control to put things in their own hands, and I think they have done a really good job of doing it.“It’s a special group. It is a very close group. These guys are competitors even when they were young in midgets and all the way through so these guys have all stuck together.”
Schafer adds that one of the reasons for this team’s success is its competitive nature and points out that they not only compete in sports but in the classroom, and they understand the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve their goals.
Like most talented classes, egos can often derail a team’s success but Schafer said he has never experienced that with this group and said he thinks it starts at home.
“I credit that to the parents. They are a great group of parents that kind of knock them down when they need knocked down but also encourage them and lift them up when they need lifting up so I have not really seen an ego thing with these guys,” Schafer said.
Reynolds adds that the seniors police themselves.
“It is pretty easy to keep your egos in check when all the other seniors are as good as you are because every one of the seniors are solid guys so like if you get your ego up I promise you one of those other guys will bring it right down,” Reynolds said.
Jones added, “We are playing for each other. That is what it comes back to and playing for your brother. I am not here for me. I am here for them, and I am going to do my job so they can be successful. I am an o-lineman so I am going to do my job so Blake looks good. That is what we do and that is to back each other up so we can win.”
Schafer relays a story about this team’s selflessness and humbleness after the Tinora game.
“I think the biggest example of that was after the game against Tinora and our guys on their own accord went up to the Tinora kids and started shaking hands, and we are not allowed to do that but they had such respect for that team that they went to their coaches and said great game and great job. I think it was such a heartfelt battle with Tinora that our kids recognized that we need to really encourage those guys because this was such a good game.”
Confidence is another factor for the Bulldogs’ success but Schafer points out it doesn’t bleed into cockiness.
“We have a lot of confidence. I wouldn’t say it is overconfidence because we are certainly finishing games,” Schafer said. “I appreciate the fact that if we are behind on the scoreboard they fight through it. We did that against Crestview. We did that against Allen East, and we did that against Tinora. I like the fight in the kids and that is awesome to see because not every team has that.”
Schafer knows the Bulldogs will need all that fight and more as they face top-seeded Archbold which comes into the game, like Columbus Grove, undefeated. The Blue Streaks are averaging 39.5 points a contest and scored 35 points or more in all of their games.
Archbold is coming off a 35-28 win against Carey in its past playoff game and opened the postseason with a 42-0 win against Gibsonberg.
Blue Streak quarterback DJ Newman is the driving force behind the offense. Against Carey, Newman accounted for 359 total yards as he threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more. The Archbold signal caller was 13 of 23 for 211 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 148 yards on 16 carries.
“They are a mirror of us,” Schafer said. “They have the same offense. The exact same offense. They have a good, physical running back and an extra talented running and passing quarterback, and they have a receiver that is very fast and can jump. If I were to describe that to you, you would say that it is Blake Reynolds, Gabe Clement and Colin Metzger. I look for it to be a similar scoring situation as it was against Tinora. I wish it wasn’t that way. It can be one of those games.”
True to the senior mentality Jones added, “We know what we need to do. It is just a fight, honestly and we are used to it. I feel we haven’t played to our potential, and we haven’t peaked yet, and we are getting better every day. I still think we have a lot of potential still left in us and a lot to show still.”