By Dan Walk
With a spot in the District 10 Class AAA playoffs on the line, Meadville head coach Mike Feleppa was straight and to the point when talking about tonight’s non-region football game at Conneaut and what it should mean for his players.
“They better be ready. If they’re not ready, I don’t think they have a heartbeat,” the Bulldogs’ first-year head coach said. “There’s a lot on the line tonight: A chance to go to the playoffs, a chance to finish the year at .500 and obviously to get a win tonight would be huge for this program and the direction we’re headed.”
According to District 10, Meadville (4-5) is competing with Strong Vincent (3-6) and Oil City (3-6) for the district’s final triple-A postseason spot. The Bulldogs are guaranteed to have the best record of those three teams if they are victorious tonight.
Strong Vincent plays North East in Harbor Creek. Meanwhile, Oil City finishes its regular season tonight at Franklin. It is assumed that the Oilers would be ahead of the ’Dogs in the playoff hierarchy if Oil City wins and Meadville loses. Both teams would finish 4-6 overall and 2-4 in Region 5, while the Oilers own a 35-21 win over Meadville.
“We have to win. I do know that,” Feleppa said. “And then there’s some other things that got to happen. ... So if we lose, we go home. There is no tomorrow for us.”
On the other side of the coin is Conneaut (5-4), which has qualified for the Class AAA playoffs. The Eagles will receive their first taste of triple-A competition against Meadville. It will serve as an important playoff primer.
“I think it means a lot,” Conneaut head coach Pat Gould said. “This is a test for these kids to see what they can do at the triple-A level. There’s no doubt the competition should be better.”
Neither Gould nor Feleppa are downplaying the quality schedule that the Eagles have already played. Region 1 is comprised of smaller schools than Meadville’s Class AAA Region 5. But Region 1 includes stalwarts West Middlesex and Sharpsville, who are each ranked as top 10 Class A teams in the state according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
“They played a single-A schedule, but I think that’s a little deceiving,” Feleppa said. “They play one of the most competitive single-A schedules in the state.”
The condition of the field in Linesville adds another interesting wrinkle to tonight’s game, which kicks off at 7 p.m. Superstorm Sandy has brought rain to the area all week.
Meadville normally plays and practices on a turf field, but Feleppa was sure to change things up during practice this week with a wet and possibly muddy grass field in mind.
“Believe it or not, we have grass in Meadville, too,” Feleppa said. “And we’ve been practicing all week on our other practice field beside our regular field turf. That’s what we’ve been doing all week — out on the grass.”
Gould doesn’t believe the field will be too sloppy.
“It’s not that bad because we don’t have any junior high games at the field anymore,” Gould said. “It’s not like a lot of years where from hash to hash there’s mud. It actually needed rain. But not this much.”
Though Gould said he hasn’t sat down and watched film on Meadville until this season, he knows all about the ’Dogs’ wing-T rushing attack. Meadville has senior Artrel Foster, who has rushed for 656 yards and 11 TDs; junior fullback Ryan Harkness, who has amassed 1,070 yards and 10 scores; and senior back Trevor Martin, who has totaled 542 yards and four TDs.
Though Meadville attempts just about five passes a game, its multi-optioned rushing attack has know to give the opposition fits.
“That’s the problem I guess with the Wing-T,” Gould said. “You have Artrel Foster, who does a great job and is a super weapon for them. Then there’s also the fullback and the counter game. It’s tough because you just can’t key on one of them.”
The Eagles have leaned on sophomore running back Elijah Anderton, who as run for 1,085 yards on 187 carries with 11 touchdowns. Freshman Hunter Merritt has also totaled 641 yards and nine touchdowns rushing. There’s also quarterback Jon Onderko, who has completed 43-of-92 passes for 454 yards with six TDs and nine interceptions.
“You have to defend the run and pass for sure,” Feleppa said. “We’ve been good at times doing both and we’ve been bad at times doing both. So we have to make sure we’re able to defend both (tonight).”