Van Wert is hopping with excitement.
The Cougars will be playing in the Division IV state championship game against Mentor Lake Catholic High School at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon at 12:15 p.m. Sunday and the road to the finals has been paved by the efforts of the guys in the trenches for Van Wert.
While quarterback Owen Treece has dazzled fans with his running and passing ability and hitting fellow teammates Dru Johnson and Connor Pratt for big plays, it has been the tough work up front by lineman like that Turner Witten and Cullen Dunn that has allowed their teammates to shine.
When his teammates do score, the players know they will not get the glory in the media, but they will celebrate with their teammates.
“Sometimes we are tired and we all get in a little huddle and high five and sometimes we run down there and jump up and down with them,” Witten said. “We’ve always known that running backs and wide receivers get more stats than we do and we do just as much as they do and we all do are part and it is just as important as theirs.”
“The line isn’t the most fun job but when it gets down to it you really need it and it is fun to really manhandle somebody,” Dunn said.
Witten, a three-year starter and Dunn, who has played the past two seasons, came in as the veterans on the line and even though they are juniors, they accepted the challenge of being leaders and that began during the offseason.
“With me and Cullen Dunn being the most experienced we kind of had to do our part and help out the others which we all know what we are doing so it is just helping each other out to be the best that we all can be,” Witten said.
Dunn added, “I feel like we did a good job especially not having that many seniors (eight total) and I feel like the junior class really stepped up.”
Witten, a first-team all-Western Buckeye League selection and first-team All-Northwest District choice, got his first taste of life in the trenches as freshman when he was thrust into duty against St. Marys in the 2018 playoffs and quickly learned what that was going to entail.
Dunn became a starter his sophomore season and has also been battle tested with two seasons in the WBL that features some of the best line talent in the area.
“Turner started as a freshman on our playoff team the last two games because of an injury but he got thrown in against St. Marys in a regional semifinal game and that was really good for him to learn and mature him quickly so going into his sophomore year he started at center,” Recker said. “He is very seasoned right now and is a veteran even as a junior in how much football he has played.”
Recker added that Dunn, who could not crack the lineup as a freshman, and Witten became starters both ways their sophomore years and added that he knew they were good but admits they exceeded his expectations.
“The way that they have been handling playing both sides of the ball and at that high of a level has been pretty impressive,” Recker said. “On the offensive line they have just continued to improve and understand where they wanted to be. We moved Cullen out to tackle from guard and his pass protection has been huge.
“Turner has been our center because he is our best snapper. He is accurate and he does a nice job in the run game and pass game.”
One of the reasons the line works so well is the chemistry between all the players who have been friends since elementary school.
“I know everyone on the line and we have been playing together for a long time so we built that chemistry, and we know how we play, and it helps out a lot,” Dunn said.
Coming into this season Witten said the team had high expectations but admits they didn’t know how far they could really go.
“We had high expectations but we didn’t know it was going to be this high,” Witten said. “We definitely had high expectations.”
While these two players helped solidify the Cougar offense line, Recker said it has been their performance on the defensive side of the ball that has really made the biggest impact for the Cougars.
“The defensive line was probably where they have developed the most,” Recker said. “That was a worry at the beginning of the season and whether we were going to be able to hold up against teams that wanted to run the ball like a St. Marys, Wapak or Defiance and those guys have done phenomenal against bigger lines and use their athleticism and use their strength to fight off blocks, and they do a real nice job of finding the ball and really helping our linebackers and safeties do their job.”
As a defender Witten had 45 tackles, five tackles for loss and three sacks during the regular season and was a second team All-WBL performer. Dunn, also a second-team league performer, recorded 45 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks and one fumble recovery.
“The most fun is making a tackle for a loss or making a sack or putting someone on their back on offense,” Witten said.
The Van Wert offense and defense once again find themselves with another tough test this week. Even though the Cougars have fended off four playoff opponents who feature talent on both sides of the ball, the team has come away with a 28-20 victory against Cincinnati Wyoming.
Last week was another major victory against Cincinnati Wyoming where the Cougars held 1,000 yard rusher C.J. Hester to 51 yards on 23 carries.
“I was very impressed with the way we played defensively against Wyoming with a very good receiver, very good running back and very good offensive line,” Recker said. “Our open field tackling has been a huge part of it. Again we are not giving up big plays. We gave up zero big plays against Shelby. We gave up two big plays against Wyoming in the air and that is a credit to our defensive line but also to our safeties coming down hill and doing open field tackling as well as our linebackers. They did a great job of executing our scheme.”
Mentor Lake Catholic
Mentor Lake Catholic brings its own big play capabilities into the state finals.
Playing an independent schedule, Mentor Lake finished the regular season 3-2 but has been on a roll in the postseason. The Cougars, yes the same mascot, opened the playoffs with a 41-0 win over Canton South followed by a 35-21 victory over Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy and then a 7-0 win over Northwest and a 35-7 win over Youngstown Ursuline. Last week, Mentor Lake edged Bloom-Carroll 17-10.
Like Van Wert, Mentor Lake features a dual threat quarterback in Joe Malchesky who has rushed for 1,410 yards with 12 touchdowns and passed for 976 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“They are similar to us,” Recker said. “They have a very good quarterback that they use in their run game with outside runs and inside runs and he is a very capable passer. They will run some different formations with a tight end but the same concepts of what they want to run. “
Recker added that preparation for the game has been pretty much the same as throughout the playoffs with teams that like the run and just executing it.
“They have little bigger offensive line than we have and they run the ball pretty well and they do a nice job getting on blocks and they have a couple of nice receivers and defensively they execute their scheme pretty well. Their defensive line understands how they need to play and their linebackers (Simon Taraska, Ryan Joy and Brady Bowser) come downhill really well and a secondary that hunts the ball.”
With all the excitement and hoopla surrounding make state, Recker said the coaching staff told the players Monday to stay focused amid all the hype.
“We told them it is not a normal week,” Recker said. “We don’t have balloons and signs for a normal week. It is special and we want to make it special for them and this is something that doesn’t happen too often and we want to make it special for them this week and just help them understand that during the school day and then at night after practice there is a lot of talk and fun things going on but in practice it is time to get locked in.
“This is an atypical week and with all the things going on and then you are going to find out that at 12:15 Sunday it is a normal game that you have been playing like your last 11. I think it helped them focus. Yes it is not normal but bringing home a gold trophy is not normal either and that is where we want to get to. I know they are excited and focused and done a good job with it and having fun when they can.”
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468.