STEUBENVILLE - Undefeated Steubenville, having already claimed Coach Reno Saccoccia's 300th career victory and clinched an opportunity to play host to a first-round Division III, Region 11 playoff game, can reach still another important milestone Friday night.
By defeating visitingTonawanda (N.Y) Cardinal O'Hara at Harding Stadium, the Big Red Nation would also celebrate the 19th undefeated regular season in school history. Twelve of those remarkable campaigns have already occurred during Saccoccia's almost legendary 29 years at the helm of this Jefferson County juggernaut.
''Our No. 1 goal every year is to play a home game and win the regional championship,'' Saccoccia said. ''It hasn't always worked out that way, but we've won a few.''
A ''few'' in this case actually adds up to many as Big Red already owns 13 regional crowns in the Buckeye State (all achieved under Saccoccia) and, by the way, Steubenville also has gone on to capture three state championships during this span (1984, 2005, 2006). All three of those teams realized perfect-record seasons.
Already a member of the Ohio Coaches Hall of Fame and the first Ohio Valley Athletic Conference mentor to reach 300 victories, Saccoccia's emotions spilled over last week following the 24-7 spanking of mighty Massillon, one of Ohio's storied high school football programs.
Standing proud in the locker room while fighting back tears of joy, Saccoccia told reporters covering the hard-hitting contest that ''All 300 of these wins belong to the Big Red Nation. It's never been about one coach or one player. It took a lot of good coaches, a lot of good players and a lot of hard work by a lot of good people.''
The fact the victory came against a Massillon team that Steubenville has managed to defeat just five times in 45 previous meetings, made this moment all the more special for the members of the 9-0 record 2011 squad.
''They worked so hard to get to this point,'' Saccoccia repeated earlier this week. ''Just three short months ago these kids weren't anything in the minds of the people in the state of Ohio. Nine weeks later they defeated a team like Massillon, the winningest football program in the state of Ohio and changed everybody's opinion.
''The key to our success this year has been that our team chemistry has evolved so much.
''You need this kind of chemistry to achieve team success. We've still got a long way to go and hopefully many things to accomplish this year, but I'm really happy for this group of players.''
Although turning Big Red's attention away from the celebration to think about playing a 1-7 record team may not be easy,
Saccoccia had some words of warning when practice resumed Monday.
''We have to stay focused and be prepared to play hard for 48 minutes. I'm not saying we'll get beat but if we don't got out and get after it on every play you might get hurt,'' Saccoccia said. ''We can't afford any injuries heading into the playoffs.''
Steubenville leads the recently launched series 4-0 against Cardinal O'Hara but the first three games were very competitive.
Both teams came into the first meeting in 2007 riding impressive winning streaks. Big Red stretched its victory skein to 40 straight with a hard-earned, 19-14 triumph, halting the Hawks' 26-game run. After prevailing 34-14 and 34-26 the next two years, Steubenville rolled 36-0 last season.
''O'Hara is not as good as they have been but their coach Angelo Sciandra always does a good job with his teams as far as schemes are concerned,'' Saccoccia said.
Coming off a 63-12 loss to one of the Monsignor Martin Athletic League's top teams in Buffalo St. Francis in its most-recent start, Cardinal O'Hara also didn't fare so well against a mutual Big Red opponent earlier in the year. The Hawks lost 48-20 to Buffalo St. Joseph Collegiate Institute and the Marauders' gifted quarterback, Chad Kelly, the newphew of Buffalo Bills Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.
Big Red led St. Joe by just 22-20 at halftime before pulling away to win 49-26, although the Clemson recruit Kelly threw for more than 300 yards and certainly proved himself to be the real deal.
''We've played against some outstanding quarterbacks over the past several years and Kelly is right with the best of them,'' Saccoccia said.
O'Hara's backfield is led by Kyree Carter, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound fullback/defensive tackle, and junior quarterback Anthony DiFrancesco, 6-3, 185-pounder who started against Big Red as a sophomore. Up front, the leading performer is Chris Driver, 6-3, 235-pound tackle.
Carter shows some impressive rushing numbers this year, running for 1,038 yards on 145 carries, while DiFrancesco has rushed for 667 yards and passed for just 279 in the ground-oriented attack.
Big Red senior running back Jo Jo Pierro had another solid performance against a huge Tigers line, running for 100 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
''We got some punishing yards in the fourth quarter and Pierro got most of them,'' Saccoccia pointed out.
Pierro capped off both clinching touchdown drives with solid efforts around the goal line during the final 12 minutes as Big Red finally pulled away. Overall this season he has 824 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Pierro could easily be past the 1,000 yard plateau and have had 20-plus touchdowns. However, in several games this season, he barely played a half as the Big Red coaches pulled the plug early instead of trying to run up the score.
Along with some excellent offensive execution, Steubenville was outstanding on defense, limiting a Massillon team that entered the game with a scoring average above 30 points and 304 yards of offense to just 107 yards and six first downs.
Defensive end William Houst stripped the ball from Tigers quarterback Shawn Kempt's hands on the third play from scrimmage, setting up not only Big Red's initial TD, but the kind of relentless play Massillon would see from its opponents defense all night. Houst was just one many standouts on the Big Red defense that night.
''Our special teams, offensive and defensive lines played really well early in the game when we went up 10-0,'' Saccocia said. ''Then two consecutive possessions resulted in turnovers allowing them to get back in it. In the fourth quarter we came on again.
''You can't beat Massillon with trick plays. We knew we couldn't out-physical them. Our game plan was to play our hearts out and hopefully be around in the fourth quarter to make a couple of big planyand win it.''
Happily, the way Saccoccia and his coaches planned it was the way things turned out and Steubenville came away with a victory that will be ranked highly on the list of best ever wins by the Big Red players and the entire community.