IRONTON -- The Ironton Fighting Tigers (12-1) are one of 14 No. 1-seeded teams to reach Ohio's state semifinals where head coach Trevon Pendleton and his team prepare to meet West Jefferson on Saturday at Chillicothe's Herrnstein Field.
Kickoff will be at 7 p.m. and the winner will face the either Kirtland (13-0) or Oak Harbor (13-0), both No. 1-seeds also, on the same date and time but at Strongsville High School. West Jefferson (12-1) was seeded No. 2 in Region 20.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association pairs semifinalists based on geographic location from one another and stages the game at a playoff-approved location central to those school districts. West Jefferson (12-1) is located in Madison County approximately 14 miles from Columbus.
Pendleton has the Division V, Region 19 champion Tigers two wins away from a state championship that only two other Ironton teams have won (1979 and 1989). To get the team this close to a title in 2019, just his second season at the helm of the storied Ironton football program, isn't a surprise to Pendleton but an expectation as football coach there.
"When you take a job like Ironton, you kind of know the expectations here are high," Pendleton said. "The expectations are to win the conference, win the region and put yourself in position to play for a state championship.
"It's something that kind of comes with the territory. You know you got the kids here, the lineage. You know a lot of their relatives played in those types of games."
Pendleton took over the Ironton program for the 2018 season after spending 2017 as an assistant at his alma mater, Portsmouth West. Since coming to Lawrence County, he's seen the attitude change with kids as they've put in the time in the weight room, film room and on the practice field, he said.
The year before, the Tigers suffered humiliating defeats against Wheelersburg (48-3) and Ashland (35-0) plus two losses against Ohio Valley Conference foes Fairland (27-21) and Coal Grove (28-7). Ironton had not lost to fellow Lawrence County foes since 1961. It limped to a 4-6 record overall and just 3-4 in the OVC.
Under Pendleton, a former fullback at Michigan State, it rebounded in his first year finishing 6-5 with two conference losses coming to OVC champion Gallia Academy and long-time rival Portsmouth. That first campaign ended with a first-round, 15-7 loss to eventual state champion Johnstown-Monroe.
This season, Ironton had big expectations with junior running back/linebacker Reid Carrico who committed to Ohio State earlier this year out of approximately 35 offers from NCAA Division I programs from across the country.
"Coach Pendleton has helped me on both sides of the ball," Carrico said. "My freshman year I was raw and wasn't even playing linebacker. I was playing safety. Over the past two years he's helped me learn to become a technically more sound football player."
Carrico said Ironton is a "grittier team" under Pendleton. The only let down was a 16-10 loss to Ashland Paul Blazer at the Tomcats' Putnam Field in two overtimes that Carrico said still eats at the team.
The Tigers (12-1) have been dominant in a 30-6 win over Wheelersburg, 10-0 over Russell and stormed through the OVC undefeated with an average margin of victory of 42.6 points. That included a 52-0 win over the defending champion Blue Devils at Gallipolis' Memorial Field.
Ironton has not allowed more than 14 points in a single contest this season and that came in the Fighting Tigers' 24-14 win over Ridgewood in the Division V, Region 19 final. It's dominant play has been coming from a change in player attitude when Pendleton arrived, said quarterback/safety Gage Salyers.
"The change in all the players' attitudes and work ethic just I think it shows every play on Friday and Saturday nights with everyone's mindset of going out there and giving it everything they have," Salyers said. "Then from the fan base. Everyone is into Ironton football again."