Retooled for their second season in the GWOC, Joel Derge and the Tipp Red Devils plan on building for the future through a vivid reminder of the not-so-distant past.
Tipp City – It’s a question senior Noah Bledsoe, an offensive left tackle, said he poses to the Tippecanoe High School coaching staff every season.
“I ask (coach Joel Derge) once a year if we can have a tackle eligible play. He turns me down,” Bledsoe said, smiling at the thought of hauling in a pass – maybe even for a touchdown – for the Red Devils.
These days Bledsoe’s end zone celebrations are limited to rumbling down field to join teammates after springing a running back with a block or protecting the quarterback’s blind side. And with speedy senior running back Cole Barhorst returning (his longest touchdown run was 86 yards last season), some end zone reunions take longer to join than others.
“I always wanted to be a tight end … but left tackle is perfectly fine with me,” Bledsoe said. “It’s a rush seeing him running and beating people. You want to try and catch up to him. But sometimes it takes us a little bit (to get down field).”
That could change this year. The Red Devils enter the season better conditioned and better prepared for its second trip through the meat-grinder that is the Greater Western Ohio Conference. The Red Devils – the smallest school in the 20-team GWOC – went 7-4 overall last season and 3-2 in the American North division for third place.
It was a respectable showing for a Red Devils team that heard whispers they weren’t big enough to be in the GWOC after leaving the Central Buckeye Conference.
Tipp has the smallest enrollment of all 20 GWOC schools with 296 boys in grades 9-11, according to the OHSAA’s enrollment figures. Greenville is next with 315. And it’s a sizable leap to the next smallest school in the division with Piqua’s 381. Troy leads the division with 513.
“I kind of like being the underdog,” Barhorst said. “I know people probably don’t think we belong. In Tipp City we like to think we do. … I feel like we still have something to prove. I think if we come out this year and get some good wins, teams will look at us like we belong.”
Barhorst and Co. will have to do that against what could be the Red Devils’ toughest schedule in program history. Non-league opponents Bellbrook and Shawnee are followed by GWOC crossover games with Northmont, Trotwood and Fairborn. Troy, Sidney, Greenville, Piqua and Butler follow in division play.
“We’re not afraid of it,” Derge said. “We’re not going to back down. We think we can compete with those teams. We give credit to all the teams we play but we’re not afraid to stick our nose in there and get dirty.”
Unlike past seasons in the CBC – and with all due respect to the teams in that conference – there’s no let-down in the GWOC.
“Our first year in the GWOC, there was a difference compared to the CBC when we used to blow out teams,” Bledsoe said. “Now you’re fighting every single play like it could be your last. It’s fun. … It’s kind of like your David and Goliath.”
Tipp’s motto in 2016 was “Prove It.” The team did so with wins against Sidney, Greenville and Butler in division play. But it was a Week 5 crossover game against Fairborn that emphasized what playing in the GWOC means. Fairborn entered the game 0-4. Tipp was 3-1. The Red Devils needed a 29-yard field goal with 10 seconds left to beat the Skyhawks 45-44.
“That was the moment for our team we really knew what the GWOC was all about,” Derge said. “You had an 0-4 team that came to our place and they did a great job. I think they were one of the best 0-4 teams in the state.”
A year later Tipp’s motto is “Chase It.” With Barhorst back – he finished fifth among all GWOC running backs with 1,279 yards on 197 carries (6.5 yards per attempt) – and running behind a veteran offensive line, the Red Devils are in pursuit of the division title against Troy, Piqua, Butler, Sidney and Greenville.
Though Tipp has played GWOC teams in past seasons – including playoff games against Piqua and Trotwood-Madison in 2015 – the Red Devils experienced the hard-hitting conference week in and week out last season. It was a step up for the Red Devils from the CBC. The schools were bigger. The players were faster. The talent level was higher. And the tackles were harder.
“There are some guys you know are going Division I. They’ll pop you,” Barhorst said. “As soon as you get hit you’re like yeah I see why he’s going Division I now. In the CBC they have some guys like that. It’s definitely different (in the GWOC).”
Barhorst will get the bulk of the carries as the team’s leading rusher from last season. Tipp graduated its next four leading rushers who accounted for 1,205 yards. Clay Barhorst, Daniel Hagen and Josh Burritt (a 1,000-yard rusher at the JV level) are among those expected to give Barhorst a breather.
And keep this in mind: Before Barhorst had his breakout season of 1,279 yards last year, he had 489 in limited duty in 2015.
“Every year I feel like we breed running backs,” Barhorst said. “Every year we get guys that are good. There’s never an off year for the running back position. … The offensive line, anyone can run through those holes. They do a great job.”
Tipp returns four of its five offensive linemen from last year with Bledsoe, junior left guard Tyler Altic, senior right guard Mason Pence and junior right tackle Grant Heatherly. Senior center Ethan Campbell joins them.
“They’re doing a very good job of meshing together and figuring out the blocking schemes a little quicker than we did last year,” Derge said. “We have big guys up front. We just really gotta focus on some guys that can rotate in and back them up.”
Senior Dylan Blair has competition at quarterback but has taken the majority of first-team snaps. Senior Connor Woltz and junior Bryce McCullough are his top targets with junior Josh Walland at tight end.
Senior Caleb Blake, senior Garrett Stephens, McCullough and Walland highlight the defensive line. Senior Matt Garber, who had 92 tackles and five sacks last season, leads a group of linebackers that also includes senior Clay Barhorst and junior Mason Gostomsky. Senior Russell Ramsey and Justin Everette return in the secondary.
The Red Devils have a program-record 87 players out this season. That depth could help limit the number of players seeing action both ways on offense and defense, and more important, help fill out the special teams units.
“I started out on special teams my sophomore year just trying to get a spot,” Cole Barhorst said. “That’s what we’re trying to teach all the younger guys here. You get a spot on special teams to show the coaches you work hard and you can get your chance to shine.”
Barhorst led the Red Devils with 11 rushing touchdowns last season. He logged five 100-yard rushing games, including a season-high 242 yards on 27 carries in a win against Springfield Shawnee. But he also had games of 78, 76, 66, 65 and a season-low 44 yards on 11 carries in a loss to Trotwood-Madison. Some of those games Barhorst deferred to a teammate who had the hot feet.
But he’s out to limit those low-yardage games in 2017.
“That’s one of my goals now, not to have any off games,” Barhorst said. “As long as we’re getting the ball in the end zone. But I want to be performing my best for the team.”
Added Derge: “Cole is motivated to work hard all the time. If you have 80 or 90 kids on the team you’re always going to have five or six that don’t need motivated day to day. … His vision is what sets him apart from a lot of other running backs we’ve had and we’ve played against. There’s things with his vision you just can’t coach. He sees a hole before it’s there. He understands the blocking scheme from the offensive line.”
The Red Devils open the season hosting Bellbrook on Aug. 25 in their bid for a 13th straight postseason appearance. Last year’s season ended with a stunning 41-40 loss to top-seeded Franklin in the Division III, Region 12 playoffs. Tipp led 21-0 in the first quarter and 27-14 at halftime. The Red Devils, who led 40-28 to start the fourth quarter, lost when the Wildcats scored a short touchdown with 18 seconds left.
“Every play matters,” Barhorst said. “Coach said it at practice, don’t take any plays off. He brought up that loss and it kind of hits you … we were one point away from a win. We have to finish this year. It’ll be with me until Week 11 this year. We need to get redemption.”