Eastwood football back on track
LUCKEY — At this time a year ago, Eastwood’s football team had just finished a 4-6 season, the first sub-.500 season since 1999.
The Eagles were at their lowest point in 16 years, and there was no hard evidence that they would rebound like they have.
A team led by a strong sophomore class a year ago, Eastwood has turned itself around. After going 9-1 this season, the Eagles are back in the state playoffs after having won a Northern Buckeye Conference championship.
Eastwood will host Marion Pleasant (8-2) in a Division V first-round game Saturday at 7 p.m.
“I’m happy for our guys,” Eastwood coach Jerry Rutherford said. “I told them that in one year they brought our program back to where it’s supposed to be — where it’s been for the last 16 years. That’s a tribute to how hard our guys have worked, how hard our coaches have worked. It’s just great to see us back to where we expect to be — playing for a league championship, winning a league championship, and playing in the state playoffs.”
Eastwood’s strong season started with a rigorous nonconference schedule that Rutherford believes helped his team excel into the bulk of the NBC season. The Eagles, who start four seniors, 16 juniors, a sophomore and freshman, ran through the conference, regaining the NBC crown after finishing fourth in 2015.
Eastwood went 7-0 in the NBC winning its conference games by an average of 30.7 points per game.
“In 12 months, to come back that far, obviously a year ago we knew we were playing younger guys,” Rutherford said. “But we had played younger guys in the past and were always able to still compete for league championships. That wasn’t the case a year ago.
“A lot of it has to do with guys buying in more, guys wanting to see the team succeed, and putting in a lot of time. Our guys have put in a lot of time through June and July. I think they’re seeing the rewards of that and hopefully our younger guys are seeing that and saying, ‘This is what we have to do to keep this going and keep the program where it is right now.’”
Senior fullback Ian Downard led the Eagles in rushing with 964 yards and 22 touchdowns on 180 carries, while freshman Jalen Rayford ran for 664 yards and four scores. Rayford averaged 10.2 yards per carry in the Wing-T offense.
Junior Cade Boos ran for 488 yards and seven touchdowns, and junior quarterback Jake Pickerel ran for 343 yards and three touchdowns.
Of Eastwood’s 43 offensive touchdowns, 38 came on the ground.
“We’re playing pretty good right now,” Rutherford said. “We’ve mixed in some other things and I think that’s helped us. I would like to think that at this point the top eight teams in your region are all playing pretty good also.”
Eastwood has out-scored its opponents 350-125 this season, including a 134-33 margin in the second half. The Eagles have allowed just 14 fourth-quarter points this season behind a defense that is led by junior linebacker Tyler Schmeltz.
Schmeltz leads the team with 106 tackles, including 13 for loss. He has three sacks and has caused one fumble.
Alex Ross has 84 tackles and Jalen Casiano has 60, while Antonio Salinas leads the team with 14 sacks. Dalton Andrews is second with eight sacks.
Boos has a team-high five interceptions and Corey Coffman has three. Four other players each have one.
The strong defense has catapulted Eastwood, wearing down on opponents as the game drags on. The Eagles have only a few players that play on both sides of the ball.
Rutherford has been happy with the way the team has responded in big games this season. The Eagles won their opener 21-15 against Division I Toledo Start before beat Bowling Green 28-17 in Week 2.
Against Genoa, Pickerel ran for a 77-yard touchdown late in the game to lift Eastwood to a 28-27 win, and after trailing Rossford 14-7 last Friday, the Eagles out-scored the Bulldogs 48-7 the rest of the way.
“Going to Rossford last week, playing to get into the playoffs and playing to get a share of the league championship and having a lot more to play for than we did at that point, all those things will help us down the road and hopefully will help us this Saturday night,” Rutherford said.
“I was worried going over there. But our kids came to play and played with a lot of emotion and I thought that was good to see.”