HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Indiana opens playoffs versus high-powered Ringgold
It might border on cliché, but the playoffs are a whole new season and every team is starting out with an 0-0 record.
And that’s exactly the way Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas wants his team to look at things. Maybe the Indians did win only four games in the regular season, and maybe they didn’t beat a team that finished with a winning record.
But it’s irrelevant now as the Indians (4-5) get ready to kick off the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs Friday night at Ringgold (7-2), one of the highest-scoring teams in the district. The Indians drew the No. 9 seed in the 16-team bracket.
“We’re not one of the top seeds, but as I told the kids, we’re all 0-0 and we have to be on top of our game,” Zilinskas said.
Indiana was fortunate in a sense that it did not get a lower seed. Had that happened, the Indians likely would have been matched up with a team they already played this season, and the WPIAL has historically been reluctant to do that. So instead, the Indians got the No. 8 Rams, the third-place team from the Big Nine Conference.
But don’t be fooled into thinking this will be an easy game for Indiana because it got seeded so high. The Rams, led by 28-year-old head coach Matt Humbert, a former quarterback at California (Pa.), average 42.9 points per game and have put up 50 or more points four times.
The Rams are led by quarterback Nico Law, a dual threat who has terrorized defenses all season. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound junior has rushed for 1,116 yards on only 99 carries and also completed 81 of 154 pass attempts for 1,353 yards and 14 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
“He is very athletic,” Zilinskas said. “We’re going to have to be on our game defensively and find ways to stop him.”
Zilinskas said the Indians will take the same approach against Law that they did against West Mifflin tailback Jimmy Wheeler a few weeks ago.
“We need to have the same mentality that we did back then,” he said. “(Law will) handle the ball a lot and he will have to earn every yard he gets.”
Just like Indiana has Riley Stapleton (38 catches for 572 yards) and Darrious Carter (29 for 450), Ringgold has a pair of big-play receivers in Dayshore Majors (26-439) and Alan Prichett (24-419), so the pressure will be on the Indiana secondary to keep things in front of them and not allow the big play.
But if there is a knock against Ringgold, it’s that the Rams come from a traditionally weak conference. The Big Nine has usually been Thomas Jefferson and a bunch of also-rans, with some struggling programs bringing up the rear.
“They score a bunch,” Zilinskas said of the Rams, “but typically those teams in that conference rack up a lot of points against teams like Albert Gallatin and Uniontown.”
Indiana managed to clinch a playoff berth despite a 4-5 record. But along the way, the Indians played six teams that are in the playoffs, the most by any team in Class AAA. That fact might have something to do with the Indians being seeded so high despite a losing record.
“Maybe they looked at us and saw we had some respectable performances this year and they moved us up,” Zilinskas said. “They can’t pair up teams from the same conference, so there may have been some matchups like that if they did it the way they wanted to. It helped us.”
None of that really matters, though. What does matter is how well the Indians come out to play Friday against a team that hasn’t had many struggles this season: The Rams had only one game decided by fewer than 16 points all year.
Zilinskas, though, thinks his team will be ready.
“We’re just real excited about playing anybody,” he said. “It’s going to come down to proving we belong and playing the game of our lives.”