IRONTON — For Ironton High School's football team to reach the Ohio state championship game in Canton will require a 230-mile bus ride.
It also could necessitate the conquering of a nemesis from a mere 19 miles down the Ohio River.
The Fighting Tigers open their season vs. Wheelersburg at 7 p.m. Friday at Tanks Memorial Stadium. Expectations are stratospheric for Ironton, whose coach Trevon Pendleton has expressed his plans for the Tigers to become a state power again. Ironton has appeared in eight state championship games, winning titles in 1979 and 1989. A victory over the Pirates, who have won eight straight in a series the Tigers lead 17-13, would be a huge boost toward a third title.
"I think it'll be a pretty good game," Ironton quarterback Gage Salyers said. "I transferred from there, so I know both sides of it. It's always been a big rivalry."
The Tigers have scored just 7.8 points per game in the current losing streak to Wheelersburg. Salyers, committed to Youngstown State University, heads an offense that figures to be more potent. Running backs Seth Fosson (6-foot-1, 235) and Reid Carrico (6-3, 225) bring a combination of size and speed generally seen at large-school or even college levels. Both double as defensive stars, Carrico among the better linebackers in the nation, according to several recruiting services.
"Wheelersburg has an unbelievably strong program and is well-coached," Pendleton said. "They lost some people from last year's senior class, but their kids have played a lot of snaps. We have to not let anyone outwork us."
Wheelersburg won 28-6 last year, but Ironton improved dramatically from that season-opening contest to a 15-7 loss to Johnstown Monroe in the playoffs. A week after the Jonnies beat the Tigers, they defeated the Pirates 32-14.
Both teams feature large rosters, Wheelersburg has more than 100 players, 82 of whom dress for varsity. Ironton bring s 69-player roster. On what figures to be a warm night on the turf of Bob Lutz Field, depth could be a determining factor.
"The strength of our team is our depth," Pendleton said. "We have depth all over. Eight or nine o the offensive line. Depth on the defensive line."
Carrico said competition for playing time has made the Tigers better.
"Seniors, juniors and underclassmen are showing promise," Carrico said. "We can platoon a little bit. We have position battles everywhere."