ANSONIA – Halfway through the season, it would have been difficult to find anyone proclaiming Ansonia as one of the area’s top football teams.
The Tigers were 1-4 through their first five games and coming off back-to-back blowout losses to Bethel and Fort Loramie, losing 52-6 to Bethel in week four and 52-28 to Loramie in week five.
“Bethel and Fort Loramie smacked us around pretty good,” Ansonia football coach Eugene Hoening said. “I really wondered if we were going to go anywhere. When you play a good team they can make you look bad, and Bethel and Loramie – two good teams – they made us look bad.”
But from that low moment something changed in Ansonia. The Tigers won five consecutive games to secure their first winning season since 2011. They also climbed up the rankings and earned their first Ohio High School Athletic Association playoff appearance since 2010.
“Our record at least in part reflects the tenacity of our seniors,” Hoening said. “The seniors kept plugging away, and finally as seniors they get to reap the reward of their hard work.”
The seniors – Taylor Brewer, Dylan Burnfield, Nathan Denniston, Rygh Fortkamp, Aydan Sanders, Cody Sanders, Jarvis Thwaits, Austin Ward and Max Wardrip – and the rest of the Ansonia community all are enjoying the rewards of that hard work.
“It feels like our work’s finally paid off,” Fortkamp, a tight end and outside linebacker, said. “It feels like we put in the hours, we put in the time, and now we’ve finally been able to do something with it.”
The struggles that plagued Ansonia to begin this season had burdened the current Tigers throughout their high school careers.
Ansonia entered the 2017 season coming off five consecutive losing seasons. From 2012 through 2016 the Tigers averaged just two wins per season, and at the end of September they were on pace to match that mark this year.
But after struggling to find cohesiveness and a team identity through the first month of the season, the Tigers’ fortunes turned around.
“We started working together a lot better,” Wardrip, a running back and linebacker, said. “Our offensive line really started hitting all their blocks and got everything worked out. Everyone is just working together as a team.”
The result was five consecutive wins to end the regular season and a matchup with Crestview in the first round of the OHSAA playoffs at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Convoy.
“I think it’s going to be a tough challenge, but that’s what we like,” Ward, an offensive and defensive lineman, said. “We’re a gritty football team, and we’re going to bring it.”
Crestview went 9-1 in the regular season with the Knights’ lone loss coming to Northwest Conference champion Spencerville. The Knights, who are ranked fourth in the state by the Associated Press, earned the top seed in the Division VII Region 28 playoffs and a matchup with eighth-seeded Ansonia in the regional quarterfinals.
Crestview is led by quarterback Drew Kline. The 5-foot 10-inch junior has completed more than 60 percent of his passes this season for 1,853 yards and 22 touchdowns while throwing just six interceptions in 188 pass attempts. He also leads the Knights with 792 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Kline’s top targets are 6-foot 3-inch junior Wade Sheets, who leads the Knights with 44 receptions for 849 yards and 11 touchdowns, and 5-foot-10 inch junior Derick Dealey, who has 29 catches for 507 yards and five touchdowns.
“They’re fast,” Hoening said of Crestview. “They have a quarterback who can do it all. He throws well. He runs well. He runs the option well. He has the two good receivers. He has a good offensive line. That’s why they’re No. 1 in our region. Their defense looks solid. They’re a complete football team.”
Ansonia doesn’t have much experience facing pass-first offenses, but the Tigers are hopeful that they’ll be able to contain the Knights’ passing attack.
“It’s going to be a good game,” Wardrip said. “I feel like we can play with them pretty well. They pass a lot. We don’t get that a lot in our conference so that’s going to be something we’re working on in practice.”
Being matched up against the top-seeded team in the region, Ansonia knows it’s an underdog entering Friday’s game. But the Tigers aren’t intimidated and will give it their all in their first playoff game in seven years.
“We’ll go in and do the best we can,” Hoening said. “Still got to play the game to find out who wins.”
Regardless of the outcome on Friday, the Ansonia players are proud of their accomplishments and the sense of pride they’ve helped build in the Ansonia community.
“Now we have a lot more people in the stands, a lot more people rooting for us,” Fortkamp said. “I feel like it’s much more involved with the community than it was in past years.”
A lot of those fans plan to make the drive up north on Friday to see the Tigers play.
“Some of the boys have already mentioned they have relatives coming from out of town, going up to Crestview to see the game,” Hoening said. “And they talk to kids in the area, not just Ansonia kids but kids from the neighboring schools, they plan to be there as well.”
Kyle Shaner may be reached at 937-569-4316. Follow me on Twitter @KShanerAdvocate or get updates on Facebook by searching Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to dailyadvocate.com.