NEWARK, Ohio — Welcome back to Week 11.
The Eastern football team is back in the playoffs for the time since 2001, and seventh-seeded EHS will visit No. 2 seed Newark Catholic in the Division IV, Region 27 opening round on Saturday in Licking County.
The Eagles (8-2) began the 2019 campaign with back-to-back non-conference wins, topping Huntington 39-25 and Caldwell 20-14. Eastern, however, was back to .500 after a 48-0 loss at Trimble and a 24-19 last-minute loss to Waterford. Both the Tomcats and the Wildcats host playoff games this week.
Sixth-year EHS head coach Pat Newland and his team knew from Week 4 on that winning out was the only way to playoff dream alive, and the Eagles won their next six games for their longest string of victories since 2000.
“We didn’t talk about it a lot, but after the Waterford game we all knew that if we lost another game we’d be out,” Coach Newland said. “It’s just been consistency. The team practices like they play, what you see on Friday or Saturday night is what you get, they take things very seriously. Football still has to be fun at practice, but they have a good balance between fun and getting their work done. It’s just been a great year, and we want to keep it going.”
Eastern came out in Week 5 with a 32-0 victory at South Gallia, with the Eagles’ joining Trimble as the only teams to shut out the Rebels this season.
In Week 6, EHS held Wahama to minus-2 rushing yards and topped the White Falcons 54-18. After a Week 7 forfeit win over Federal Hocking, Eastern rolled past Miller by a 49-14 count to clinch its first winning-season since 2012.
EHS won the battle of Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division Eagles in Week 9, defeating Belpre 39-14 to set up a ‘win and you’re in’ game at Southern in Week 10.
The Green and White put up a season-best 531 yards of total offense and defeated their rival by a 63-6 count, making Eastern’s most points scored in a single game since the 2001 season opener.
In nine contests this season, Eastern ran for 2,564 of its 2,947 total yards, and the Eagles claimed 37 of their 46 offensive touchdowns on the ground.
Coach Newland talked about the Eagles’ run game, led by the junior tandem of Blake Newland and Steve Fitzgerald, who both have over 1,000 all-purpose yards and double-digit touchdowns this season.
“You’ve got Blake and Steve, it’s a 1-2 punch, a two-headed monster, you can’t say enough about how hard they run,” Newland said. “They’re so quick, that’s what makes them so good, they’re through the hole quick and they’re hard to bring down. They both highly praiseful of their offensive line, too.”
Coach Newland also noted that the EHS offensive line could receive a boost with Hunter Sisson’s Week 10 injury not being as severe as initially thought.
Fitzgerald — who has found the end zone multiple times in six straight contests — talked about what reaching the postseason means to him and his teammates.
“It’s pretty great, I’ve been at this for nine years now with my brothers, and it’s a lot to take in,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been looking for this for a long time, and it’s a great feeling that we’ve actually made it there. I know we’ve been peaking right here at the end of the season.”
EHS committed just nine turnovers and 46 penalties this season, while scoring 48 touchdowns. The Eagle defense had 19 takeaways — 10 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries — while allowing just 22 touchdowns.
Eagle senior Mason Dishong — with a team-best three receiving touchdowns, 29 extra-points made and a season-long 32-yard field goal — is glad that the Eagles get a chance to showcase their hard work in the Region 27 playoffs.
“Our team has been working hard and our coaches have been working hard, busting our butts in the offseason and during the season,” Dishong said. “It just shows all of the hard work that we’ve done that we earned a playoff spot. I’m looking forward to the level we’ve been playing at, showing it in a playoff run and seeing how far we can go.”
In its eight victories, Eastern has held each opponent to under 200 yards of total offense. The Eagle defense has a pair of touchdowns on the year, with a 57-yard interception return by Blake Newland and a 29-yard interception return by Bryce Newland.
Blake Newland — leading the team in rushing yards and receiving yards —talked about what’s gotten the Eagles to this point, as well as his feelings headed into Saturday’s playoff game.
“It’s great coaching that’s led us,” said Newland. “Our offensive line has done an outstanding job, makes it easy for Steve and I to do what we do and do what we’re good at. Everyone knows we’re a very powerful running team, and we’d like to keep it that way.
“We have been looking forward to this for a long time, even at the beginning of the year we said our goal was to make the playoffs. My teammates and I, we have played together for nine years, we’ve always said that we want to make the playoffs one day, and we finally did that. This Saturday, we will use our powerful run game and our physical defense to try and get a win over Newark Catholic.”
The Green Wave — back in the playoffs after back-to-back 3-7 campaigns — enter Week 11 at 7-3 with its only losses coming to fellow playoff teams, Columbus Academy, Paint Valley and Licking Valley.
NCHS has won back-to-back games for the headed into play, with a 41-16 win over Heath in Week 9 and a 35-14 triumph over Northridge last Friday.
Newark Catholic had a balanced attack headed this fall, rushing for 1,588 yards and passing for 1,569. NCHS forced 17 turnovers this season, while committing a dozen.
Coach Newland acknowledged taming the Green Wave will be a mighty task, but believes the Eagles have what it takes to compete with the nine-time state champions.
“They’re big, they’re fast and they’re good, but we think we’re pretty good too,” Coach Newland said. “When you can stop the run and run the ball, you always got a shot in the game. We’re coming in pretty confident.”
NCHS has 22 of their 39 offensive touchdown on the ground, with receiver Slater Evans finding the end zone a team-best 12 times. Green Wave signal caller Matt Carlisle has 17 passing scores, to go with team-highs of eight rushing touchdowns and 566 yards on the ground.
Newark Catholic claimed a 34-12 victory over Eastern in the previous playoff matchup between the schools, on Nov. 3, 2000, at East Shade River Stadium, the Eagles’ postseason debut.
Elsewhere in Region 27, top-seeded Harvest Prep (9-1) hosts Fisher Catholic (8-2), No. 6 Symmes Valley (9-1) travels to No. 3 Shadyside (7-3), and Waterford (8-2) welcomes Shenandoah (7-2) for the 4-5 matchup.
Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.