The St. Clairsville Red Devils came into the season with extremely high expectations.
No matter where they seemed to turn or go, someone was talking about how talented they were and how good they had a chance to be.
While dealing with that, the Red Devils never put any additional pressure on themselves and maintained the same approach they've used year after year under highly successful head coach Brett McLean.
"We never once did something this season to play not to lose or protect something because of the expectations," McLean said. "These kids wanted to put their stamp on this season, especially this senior class, which had been so close to really special seasons the last two years. These kids have shown the maturity and desire and we've had a lot of things go our way."
When you put those factors together it does equal a special season, which unblemished St. C. is hoping isn't anywhere near being over as it prepares to open the Division IV postseason as the top seed in the Region 15 tournament Friday night at Red Devil Stadium against rival Harrison Central.
"We've tried year-in and year-out to continue to sell just making the playoffs as a big deal because it really is," McLean said. "You worry sometimes about becoming complacement and you can sometimes tell when a team is just happy to be in the playoffs or if they're there with a purpose and focus because these playoffs can become a war of attrition."
While the Red Devils have already won both the OVAC Class 4A and Buckeye 8 titles along the way, McLean knows his team has plenty more listed on its goal sheet that it wants to accomplish.
"We don't sit around and talk about it every day," McLean said. "The kids realize it's a goal-driven type of thing and this team is no different in that set its goals before the season. We also realize that when you're in the playoffs, you're kind of living on a prayer because each week might be your last. We've encouraged our kids not to worry about that and just play loose like they've done all season. This is a new season and we'll play one week at a time and play to win."
The quest for what the Red Devils hope is their first regional championship under McLean and trip to the state tournament begins with a re-match with the Huskies. St. C. scored 42 unanswered points after falling behind, 6-0, during a Week 5 encounter in Cadiz.
"This is a big test this week with a lot of factors involved in this game," McLean said. "We realize that the game with Harrison Central was five weeks ago and both teams are different. Players who were green are no longer green and both teams are more mature."
In the first meeting, the Devils were very opportunistic and took advantage of some Huskies' miscues en route to the lop-sided victory, but McLean realizes you can't ever count on receiving those types of breaks a second time around.
"In the same game with less opportunities and it can be a much closer game," McLean said. "I really expect this to be a four-quarter battle. It's like taking a test. Just because you get an 'A' the first time, it doesn't mean you don't study before the next one. We've approached this week as we would any other week. We're certainly not taking anything for granted."
The Red Devils come into the postseason as the area's leading offensive unit. Actually, they're an offensive juggernaut as evidenced by the 500 points they've scored during the regular season.
The factor that makes St. C. so difficult to defend is it has so many weapons and can operate it's spread attack with a run or pass first mentality.
"A big benefit for us has been how unselfish our kids are," McLean said. "Obviously, the quick-strike ability has been kind to us."
The Red Devils are led onto the field by talented senior quarterback Matt Kinnick. He's completed an impressive 85-of-138 passes for 1,780 yards and 24 touchdowns. He's only been picked off twice.
In the backfield, junior speedster Jaylon Brown has shown the ability to go the distance from anywhere on the field numerous times. He's ran for 1,268 yards 125 carries and scored 25 touchdowns. All told, he's scored 30 times this season.
Junior Michael Ferns lines up at fullback and can also play tight end. The Michigan recruit ran for 227 yards and scored three touchdowns. He's also caught seven passes for 134 yards and two scores.
The Red Devils' home run hitter in the passing game is Boston College commit Dan Monteroso. The senior has caught 40 passes for 777 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's scored 17 total touchdowns this season.
Senior Jerrid Marhefka has caught 14 passes for 345 yards and four touchdowns despite playing with a cast on his hand for much of the season.
One of the most unheralded, but the most productive group for the Red Devils has been the offensive line. Cole Stephen, Corey Ernest, Joel Giffin, Tom Parker, Nick Van Voltenburg and tight end Jay Gossett have shined all season.
"Our offensive line has really gelled and played well," McLean said. "They've graded out well every week and they're certainly not under appreciated by us."
The Huskies' defense has been impressive with senior linebacker Nick Pelegreen and defensive end Tyler Rose leading the way. Niko Williams, Rashaen Mitchell and Nate Maykowski are also productive defensive players for the Huskies.
As for slowing down the Huskies, the St. C. defense has spent ample time this week working against the rush as it gears up for 1,800-plus yard rusher Maurtice Hython.
"We realize he's going to get a lot of touches and we're not going to hold him to nothing," McLean said. "We can't get shocked if he scores or makes a big run or two. We have to slow him down, get some stops and hopefully get ahead and put (Harrison) in catch-up mode to get them out of that approach some."
The Red Devils' defense has also been steady this season, allowing only 15.1 points per game.
The unit is led by outside linebacker Luke Smith. The senior standout leads the team in tackles with 105 tackles, including 81 solo. Ferns ranks second on the team with 86 stops from his inside backer spot.
The other two backer positions are Stephen and Ben Coleman.
The play of the defensive line has allowed the Devil linebackers to make plenty of plays. Ernest has made 54 tackles and four sacks from one defensive tackle spot. Senior Derek Shunk has also been impressive at the other tackle spot with four sacks. The ends are Gossett and Colby Lindsay.
The secondary is a strength with Marhefka - an all-Ohioan - leading the way at one corner. He's got six interceptions this season. Monteroso patrols the other corner and has three picks. Titus Lepic roams at the safety.
"Our defense has played well and they've played a lot of snaps," McLean said. "Our linebackers have played well all season and our depth along the defensive line has improved, which is a big plus."
The Red Devils' special teams have been a strength. Junior Zach Musilli has nailed 53 PAT kicks and two field goals. Senior Hayley Skukan has drilled 15 PAT kicks herself.
The winner of Friday's encounter will advance to the regional semifinals next Friday at a site to be determined by the OHSAA against the winner of Minford and Piketon.