BIDWELL, Ohio —By successfully shifting some gears on Friday night, the Raiders avoided being stuck in the mud.
That’s because River Valley, in mixing ball-control and clock-consuming drives with outbursts of big plays, pushed past the visiting Wellston Golden Rockets 14-6 in a Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division defensive slugfest.
For the third consecutive season, Wellston and River Valley squared off amid a rain-soaked and sloppy playing surface.
For the second straight year, and in a defensive battle, the Raiders hammered out a narrow win over the Golden Rockets.
Last year, River Valley pitched a 15-0 shutout at C.H. Jones Field in Wellston — as the natural grass quickly evolved into a mudbowl.
Friday night resulted in a similar situation, but the Raiders relied on their defense in forcing four Wellston turnovers and four punts — combined with two scoring drives of at least seven plays and 87 yards.
Both clubs entered the Homecoming contest at 3-2, as the Raiders improved to 1-2 in the TVC-Ohio.
River Valley also snaps a two-game losing streak in the process — having lost two league tilts to Nelsonville-York and at Meigs.
The Golden Rockets, after an impressive performance against Alexander a week ago in winning 36-13, dipped to 1-1 in the division.
It was also, essentially, a playoff elimination game in Division V, Region 19 — given Wellston was 14th entering this week while River Valley was 16th.
The top eight teams in each region, at season’s end, qualify for the state playoffs.
Indeed, it was a hard-fought grinder within a quagmire, but a win River Valley rest-assuredly needed.
“Hats off to our kids and also hats off to Wellston. That was a physical football game out there and we had two teams that really played hard. But our kids just believed and played with a lot of heart. We shot ourselves in the foot at times and we have to clean that up, but honestly, after the last two weeks (losses to Nelsonville-York and Meigs), we needed to get back in the win column for this place to be okay for the rest of the season,” said River Valley coach Jerrod Sparling. “I can’t be more proud of our kids and our staff and everybody’s effort tonight. We need to clean up some stuff, but look at the field. There’s not a lot of clean out there. When you go in the mud and it’s a slop-fest, you have to be mentally tough and I thought our kids were.”
The Raider defense, aside from Wellston’s lone touchdown which was a bruising 31-yard run by Travis Jayjohn with five minutes remaining in the second quarter, forced four punts and came away with four critical takeaways.
With Wellston trailing 7-6 in the second half, the Golden Rockets punted three times — before the Raiders reached as deep as the Wellston 14-yard-line early in the fourth period.
A bad snap on 4th-down-and-3 from the 16 resulted in a Raider turnover on downs, but Wellston went only four plays before fumbling right back — at the River Valley 40 with only eight minutes to play.
This time, the Raiders drove eight plays and all the way to the Wellston 8, but a River Valley fumble and a Joshua Bodey recovery for the Rockets gave them new life with three-and-a-half minutes left.
However, after eight plays and a march to midfield, Michael Graham’s deep pass down the sideline for Daivon Newell was intercepted by Tre Craycraft with only a minute to go.
Newell actually had a step or two on his defender, but Craycraft charged over from free safety — and made the racing pickoff.
Craycraft, who enjoyed an all-around excellent game, also intercepted Graham on a deep ball with a minute and nine seconds left in the first half.
“Being opportunistic. We had some big plays that obviously helped our plight and some things that we set up to take advantage of,” said Sparling. “Again, that is kids and coordinators, and I thought both did a great job.”
The Rockets’ first turnover, which ended a nice nine-play drive to the Raider 14, was their first lost fumble.
“It was a lack of consistency. In the first half, we had five procedure penalties. Those took us completely out of drives. Turnovers and penalties are things we’ve not had a lot of this year. But when you turn the ball over, have eight penalties and do what we did this week, we’re not going to beat anybody. We didn’t stay ahead in the chains and we didn’t take care of the ball,” said Wellston coach Greg Phillips. “We played hard tonight, but we just didn’t play well. You can’t have eight penalties and four turnovers. That’s the story right there.”
The story was also River Valley’s two scoring drives.
The Raiders turned the Rockets’ first turnover into a touchdown, marching a massive 14 plays and 87 yards in exactly four minutes and 45 seconds.
River Valley picked up six first downs on the march, mixing runs and passes by quarterback Patrick Brown — with hard runs by running back Jacob Campbell.
Facing 4th-down-and-6 at the Wellston 18, Brown rolled right and completed his first touchdown toss to a dragging Craycraft.
Devin McDonald made the extra-point kick to make it 7-0 with 2:22 remaining in the opening quarter.
In the third frame, the Raiders then drove seven plays and 93 yards — aided immensely by Campbell’s 41-yard run on a sweep to midfield.
On 3rd-and-11 at the Wellston 39, Brown threw deep to Dustin Barber, who made a nifty go-rout move on his Rocket cornerback.
Barber caught the ball in stride at the Rocket 20, and dashed into the end zone at the 2:52 mark.
McDonald made the extra point again, extending the Raiders’ advantage to 14-6.
Brown completed 5-of-13 passes for 98 yards, as the Raiders rushed for 216 yards on 51 attempts as a team.
Campbell carried 20 times for 124 yards, as Craycraft — often taking direct center snaps in the second half — carried 14 times for 89 yards.
River Valley held an 18-15 advantage in first downs, and outgained the Golden Rockets by exactly 93 (314-221).
“I thought our guys up front really held their own. Wellston is big and physical and strong. This game may have been decided on the perimeter, but in the trenches was where it was won,” said Sparling. “As far as our backs go, our kids played hard and they ran hard.”
Jayjohn paced all rushers with 140 yards on 23 attempts, as Nick Cox chipped in 80 yards on 17 tries.
The Golden Rockets rushed 43 times as a team for 214 yards.
Graham completed only one of his 10 passes for seven yards, which went to freshman Rylan Molihan.
Wellston was also penalized eight times for 50 yards, including five five-yarders in the first half.
The Raiders, on the other hand, overcame three lost fumbles and six penalties of their own.
River Valley will return to TVC-Ohio action next Friday night at Alexander, as Sparling praised his squad for its ability to be tough-minded after two tough weeks.
“This shows the backbone of this program. Going into October, it’s so easy to just lay down and die after losing two in a row. But our kids have been rock solid and everybody believed,” he said. “We got back on track tonight and that is the most important thing. The truth is I would rather be 4-2 instead of 3-3.”
Paul Boggs can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2106