IHS beats odds to reach finals
Disneyland, Kings Island, Sea World.
Saturday, December 11, 1999
Disneyland, Kings Island, Sea World. None of them can touch the ride the Ironton Fighting Tigers took their fans on during the 1999 football season.
No one could ever imagine the after the bumpy start and stumbling finish in the regular season that Ironton would put together such a magical run through the Division IV playoffs.
Ironton lost its opener 10-7 at home against veteran and senior-laden Wheelersburg. Then came a string of lopsided wins over South Point (71-6), Gallipolis (44-6), Ashland (64-6), and Dayton Belmont 63-0.
"We didn’t play very well against Wheelersburg," said Lutz. "It was a typical first game.
"We needed to come off the ball, play our positions fundamentally on defense, and hit. We didn’t do that. Sometimes early in the season you have a tendency to watch the game instead of playing and reacting."
Other than Gallipolis which qualified for the Division III playoffs, the lopsided wins came against teams who suffered losing seasons.
Then came the second big test: Portsmouth.
The Trojans were 5-1 including a 26-16 win over eventual Division V state champion Amanda-Clearcreek. In order to make the playoffs, Ironton faced a must-win situation against the Trojans.
And on this night Ironton was up to the challenge. The Fighting Tigers jumped in front 14-0, then some key mistakes let Portsmouth back in the game at 14-12.
A touchdown run late by Jason Harmon and Clark Cooper’s conversion kick put the game out of reach at 21-12.
"Portsmouth was the first good team we beat, and we still weren’t sure how good we were," said Lutz. "We played with a lot of confidence against teams we knew we could beat, but uncertain against good teams."
Columbus South was not a good team and Ironton stayed true to form with a 42-0 shutout. After an open week, the Fighting Tigers took the two-hour bus ride to Belfry, Ky.
The improving Pirates played a near-perfect game and won 17-14 on a field goal by R. P. Vipperman.
Ironton lost fullback Michael Henry on the second play of the game with an injury. Backup fullback B. J. Kerns hurt his ankle and was unable to run.
"We had chances to win, but we didn’t play well and Belfry did. They’re always a good team and they were getting better each week," said Lutz. "Losing Henry took away a lot from our offense and defense, but you have to adjust."
There would be even more adjustments to follow. All-Ohio linebacker Redgie Arden injured his knee in the game and didn’t return. In fact, he never return as the injury sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Defensive tackle Mark Gleichauf also went down with an injury and all three missed the season finale, a 27-13 loss to Division III power Columbus St. Francis DeSales.
A freak fumble near the goal line caused by an Ironton player halted a possible tying touchdown. A few plays later the Stallions got a 90-yard touchdown pass and came away with the win.
"We knew Redgie wasn’t coming back, and we decided to rest Henry and Gleichauf and hope we made the playoffs. We figured if we didn’t have Henry, we didn’t have much of a chance in the playoffs anyway," said Lutz.
The veteran coach was right.
Henry and Harmon were a dynamic 1-2 running punch in the playoffs.
Qualifying at No. 8 in the eight-team field, Ironton went on the road to the Region 16 top-seeded team, Cincinnati Wyoming.
Harmon and Henry combined for 51 carries and 252 yards. Harmon ran 20 times for 147 yards and a touchdown and Henry was a workhorse with 31 carries for 105 yards and two touchdowns as Ironton won 28-14.
Harmon also caught a 51-yard touchdown pass.
"That’s the old Ironton football," Lutz said. "We just line up, come right at you and say stop us if you can. And if we are in four-down territory, you have to stop us four times."
Next was No. 4 seeded Cincinnati Indian Hill, a team that beat Wyoming 28-14 two weeks earlier.
After struggling offensively the first half and falling behind 7-0, Ironton came to life the second half and pounded its way to a 21-7 win.
"I thought I got a whole new bunch of players the second half," Lutz said.
"The first half we just weren’t coming off the ball and we weren’t blocking. The defense wasn’t too bad, but our tackling was terrible. I don’t know how many times we ran right by the ballcarrier."
Next was the regional finals against a familiar team, Germantown Valley View. The Spartans were ranked No. 4 in the final Associated Press poll and had used a big fourth quarter to beat Ironton 50-20 the preview year.
But the old-fashioned running game of Ironton proved too much for the Spartans defense as the Fighting Tigers used a big second half for the second straight week and outscored Valley View 37-29.
Ironton trailed 21-3 at the half, then stormed back behind its defense and the running of Harmon and Henry.
"Our offense is pretty good, even for an old-fashioned, Woody’s (Hayes) still alive style," said Lutz. "River rat football is still pretty effective. Our guys started to believe in themselves."
Ironton used its running game to pick up 250 yards and 313 total. Harmon ran 18 times for 208 yards and Henry gained 75 yards on 21 tries.
The game against poll champion Youngstown Cardinal Mooney was Ironton’s 10th trip to the semifinals. And it was Ironton’s ball-control offense that beat Mooney at its own game, 34-24.
Henry ran 35 times for 110 yards and scored four touchdowns Jason Harmon carried 17 times for 86 yards. Quarterback Jimmy Peyton ran seven times for 26 yards and completed 5 of 6 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.
"Our offensive and defensive lines controlled the line of scrimmage and allowed us to control the football and keep it out of their hands," Lutz said. "We’ve got two or three good skilled players and a bunch of guys who play their roles well. I thought our quarterback played pretty good and our backs ran hard."
The state championship game matched No. 2-ranked Sandusky Perkins against the virtually unranked and unnoticed Fighting Tigers. For the fifth straight week, Ironton was a big underdog.
And while the thrilling ride was just that until the final horn, the ride hit a heartbreaking stop.
Having converted 11 of 14 fourth down conversions during the playoffs, a fourth-and-a-foot run by Henry was ruled short even though the Ironton fullback crossed the 30-yard line, the spot needed to get a first down.
Perkins quarterback Brent Adams threw to Burt Jarrett who made a spectacular catch for a 29-yard touchdown reception and turned a 14-10 Ironton win into a 16-14 loss.
"The game was ours. I felt that Michael Henry could get a half yard against anybody," said Lutz. "The guy (Adams) threw a perfect ball, which he’s going to do in that situation.
"I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We probably should have kicked it away and not taken the chance. I just didn’t feel good about punting the ball."
And so the ride ended with a sixth state runner-up trophy. Maybe it wasn’t the finish the Fighting Tigers wanted, but it was still one fun trip.