As is often the case with the fiercest of rivals, though they detest admitting it, the Conneaut Spartans and the Edgewood Warriors are more alike than different.
For decades, they were linked as members of the ill-fated Northeastern Conference. The past several years, they’ve been linked as independents playing in a playground full of conference fluidity.
Tonight, they will meet for the 49th time on the gridiron, squaring off at Corlew Stadium (7, WFUN) in a series Conneaut leads, 26-22.
And the respective coaches, third-year Conneaut coach Rocco Dobran and first-year Edgewood coach Josh Franke, already have a mutual-admiration society going on.
“They are a very talented team with a lot of skill,” Dobran said of the Warriors. “With Coach Franke, it’s a whole new system.
“Defensively, they run a 3-3 stack. They bring a lot of pressure from everywhere and play a good cover 1 (man free). Offensively, if there is a formation you can think of, they run it. They are very balanced with both run and pass.”
“They’re having a pretty good season, but I’m not surprised by that,” Franke said of the Spartans. “They have some talented players and a great coach in Rocco. I knew this year would be different than last year for them. Obviously, they have a better record than we do, so we’ll be taking them serious. They played Brookfield pretty tough and I can assure you, they won’t be overlooked.
“Offensively, they run a spread option. They really try to put a lot of pressure on you defensively to play fundamentally sound and disciplined. Not only do you have to account for the quarterback passing, but you have to account for him as a running back, as well. Defensively, they run a 3-4 and roll up their outside linebackers, basically looking like a 5-2 monster. We expect them to pinch their tackles when we have a full house backfield.”
Ironically, the two teams have played the same two opponents the past two games, alternating the opposition.
Conneaut fell to Gilmour Academy in Week 7, 42-12, with the Lancers returning to Ashtabula County last week to fell Edgewood, 49-19.
Edgewood lost to visiting Brookfield two weeks ago, 20-6, and Conneaut fell at Brookfield last week, 14-8.
All of which adds up to a delicious recipe for the penultimate game to the silver anniversary of the series, which will be celebrated next fall.
Dobran is impressed by the Warriors (3-5).
“Offensively, they have a very solid offensive line, and Riis Smith does it all... he is a great player who can score on any play,” Dobran said. “He lines up at receiver, halfback and quarterback in wildcat sets. To compliment him, they have Anthonie Magda, who is also very fast and runs with power. Connor McLaughlin is a talented receiver, who has hurt us in the past.
“Defensively, Matt Fitchet leads a tough D-line. He is a brick wall that is hard to get past. Magda is a solid linebacker and Smith is a lockdown corner.”
Franke is equally effusive in his praise of the Spartans (4-4).
“Our first priority is Troy Colucci at quarterback — he made a mockery of our defense last year and he’s done it to other defenses since then,” he said. “If he goes unchecked, he can really hurt you. He has that ability to sneak right through the smallest cracks. R.J. Nelson is a very talented athlete at running back, having two great runners in the backfield makes them dangerous.
“On the outside, they have a great wide receiver in Alex Gerdes, one of the best in the county, so we really need to have our P’s and Q’s in check.”
Conneaut had a near-miss last week at Brookfield. Despite outgaining their hosts in yardage, 255-201, two lost fumbles, nine penalties for 95 yards and some failed fourth-down conversions did in the Spartans.
“It was a tough, hard-fought game on both ends,” Dobran said. “I was very proud of our defense. They played very well the majority of the night, and they had a couple of key fourth-down stands. I felt we controlled the line of scrimmage all night.
“We did give up three big plays because of missed tackles in the backfield, but a solid overall performance. Offensively, we moved the ball very well until we got to about the 25. We fumbled twice, and we missed on fourth-and-1 twice. We needed to finish drives and Brookfield did a nice job of tightening up their defense. We just made a few too many mental mistakes offensively to win. It was a night where we definitely beat ourselves.”
Which are things that can be corrected.
“Yes, we had more yards rushing and passing, but the scoreboard is what matters,” Dobran said. “We lost two fumbles and couldn’t convert on fourth-and-short two or three times because of mental mistakes.
“We did learn some lessons, though, and are ready to move on.”
Meanwhile, the Warriors were ambushed early and often by Gilmour last week, trailing after one quarter, 28-7, and at intermission, 42-7, rendering what happened in the final two quarters to pretty much playing out the string.
“Unfortunately, we decided not to play football until the second half,” Franke admitted. “They had a couple big plays in the first half against us defensively and took advantage of a couple mismatches. We missed a ton of tackles early, we were in the right position to make stops and couldn’t. They converted a lot of third downs and that really hurt us.
“Offensively, we played OK in the first half, but picked it up through the air a lot more in the second half. Our approach after halftime was opposite than it was to start the game — we wanted to run the ball to open up the pass. In the second half, we decided to throw the ball second half to open up the run.”
And Gilmour was as good as advertised.
“To quote (former Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals coach) Dennis Green, ‘They are who we thought they were,’” Franke said. “We knew they had some great ballplayers offensively and defensively that we had to try and contain and we didn’t.
“We knew exactly what they were going to do and how they were going to do it but we couldn’t execute the game plan.”
All of which brings us to tonight for the 49th meeting on the gridiron between the archrvials.
“We need to contain their running game of Smith and Magda,” Dobran said. “And on our end, score a lot of points. The longer we can control the clock, the better.”
“We must rush for 200 yards,” Franke said, validating Dobran’s first key on the opposite sideline. “Then, we must play fundamentally sound on defense and keep their running game contained.
“Finally, we have to win the turnover battle.”
Though this will be Dobran’s third Conneaut-Edgewood game, his teams having split the two contests leading into this one, this is Franke’s first rodeo in the rivalry.
“Obviously, this is a huge game for us — a lot hangs in the balance,” he said. “We’re fighting for a .500 record and not a losing season, it’s senior night for us and our last home game... I want to send those guys out with a win for their last home game, and to add on top of it you have this big rivalry and bragging rights on the line.
“They always play us tough and we’re expecting a grudge match, just like every year, but I believe we have more to lose than they do (tonight).
“It’s going to boil down to who wants it more between the kids on the field.”