FREDERICKTOWN – If it’s by the book you want, the Fredericktown Freddies are not your football team. But maybe they should be. Winning in an unconventional manner is what makes them such a great story.
No. 8 seeds aren’t supposed to beat No. 1 seeds in the playoffs. Certainly not by shutout, with a senior emergency quarterback pressed into action who is playing football for the first time since eighth grade and a tailback dealing with knee issues.
That’s the improbable script first-year head coach Will Hartley and his 9-2 Freddies have followed into Saturday’s 7 p.m. Division VI regional semifinal against 10-1 Bainbridge Paint Valley at Hamilton Township High School.
Fredericktown’s playoff tradition obviously helps. This is the school’s eighth time in the post-season, including trips to the Final Four in 1989 and 2010 and a berth in the regional semis last year. The Freddies are acting like they’ve been there before, no matter what adversity they’ve had to overcome.
“Any time you’ve got a team that has been to the playoffs the year previous, and a lot of these guys had contributed to that success, I think expectations are higher and you’re not just satisfied to be there,” Hartley said. “I also think you can handle the excitement and playoff football a little better, with the community involvement and support that really grows through the playoff run.”
Getting to play on a neutral field Saturday night is Fredericktown’s reward for going into Fort Frye and stunning the top-seeded hosts 13-0 in the quarterfinals. Normally a receiver, Kirk Manns started at quarterback for Dillon Smith, who suffered an ankle/Achilles injury and saw time only at linebacker after getting hurt in the second quarter of the regular season finale against Cardington.
The Redbirds rallied around Manns to grind out the victory. Brenden Reed, who has been battling tendinitis, rushed for 111 yards and both touchdowns on 15 carries. Complementing him on the ground were fellow seniors Austin Geiger (76 yards) and Tyler Ohl (59 yards). Their work and that of the offensive line made Manns’ job as a game manager easy.
“Dillon played quite a bit on defense (team-high 10 tackles), but we were afraid that his mobility would be a little bit of a liability, so we thought our best shot was to go with Kirk at quarterback, and it worked out,” Hartley said.
“We really felt looking at (Fort Frye) on film that we matched up well with them. The key was playing really good team defense, which we did, and if we could control the line of scrimmage and run the football like we did the week before at Cardington, it would take a lot of the pressure off where Kirk didn’t have to feel like he had to make all the plays as a new quarterback.”
Manns’ father, Kirk, the assistant principal and athletic director at Madison Junior High, was the varsity basketball coach for several years at Fredericktown, but none of his time on the sidelines or as a star athlete in Indiana and basketball player at Michigan State prepared him for last Saturday.
“From a dad’s standpoint, with all the athletic events I’ve ever been to, played in and coached in, my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about him handling it emotionally and leadership-wise and all that. It was just simply things like the quarterback-center exchange he hadn’t been doing.
“Me and my wife were just about sick wanting him to do well for his team and himself. That was one of the toughest ones to watch over the years, for sure.”
Hartley anticipates being able to hand the offense back over to Smith, a dual threat who has thrown for nearly 1,200 yards and rushed for over 1,000, accounting for 19 touchdowns. The passing attack gets a boost with Manns back at receiver, where he has a team-leading seven TD receptions.
“His stats won’t show it,” Hartley said of Manns’ first start at QB since middle school, “but the pressure of coming into that hostile, playoff environment and doing everything from handling the huddle to taking the signals (from the sidelines), he really stepped up and did an admirable job.”
As defensive coordinator under predecessors Luke Beal and Brian Baum, Hartley can appreciate what his football team is up against in Paint Valley. The Bearcats gave up only 165 yards total offense last week to nine-time state champion Newark Catholic and secured the 21-20 win on a gutsy two-point conversion call in overtime.
Fullback Caleb Johnson scored the TD that cut Newark Catholic’s lead to 20-19 and then tacked on the PAT run for the victory after the Green Wave had rallied from a 13-0 deficit.
Paint Valley is making its third straight post-season appearance after qualifying the last two years in Division VII.
“They have a dual threat quarterback (Anthony McFadden) who moves the pocket and they’ll give you multiple offensive looks,” Hartley said. “They’ll get in the (shot)gun and they’ll also work out of the I.
“The two teams are a lot alike. We’ve both scored the exact number of points in 11 games, 352, and, defensively, they’ve given up 10 points a game while we’re giving up 16. The records of the teams we’ve beaten is identical and they’ve got seven players going both ways while we’ve got six.”
Hartley also sees the 2007 Freddies, a regional finalist team led by dual-threat quarterback Merrit Zollars, in this collection of athletes.
“That team was 8-2, had a disappointing outing against Highland (which handed Fredericktown its last loss, 49-14, on Oct. 16) and got into the playoffs as a seventh seed, where it beat the No. 2 seed Buckeye Trail and then matched up well against a real good Wheelersburg team, beating them in overtime.
“That was a special team, so hopefully this team can have that kind of special run.”