Since 2000, the Shadyside Tigers have been one of the staples of the small-school playoffs, qualifying every season except for one.
After posting the school's third 10-0 season, the second-seeded Tigers are about to embark on yet another postseason, starting Saturday night at 7 against Fairfield Christian Academy at Fleming Field.
"It's do or die now," Shadyside coach Mark Holenka said. "This is a different kind of beast when you get to this point of the season, so you need a different kind of attitude. Any time you're backed into a corner, you'd better be prepared to fight. This time of the year, you'd better start taking your play to a higher level because if you plateau at this time of the year, you're going to be exiting."
Playing host to a playoff game in the first round has become commonplace for the Tigers. Since the OHSAA expanded the format, Shadyside has gone on the road only once. Taking it a step further, they've only been bounced in the first round once and that came last year at the hands of Berlin Center Western Reserve.
On the opposite sideline, Fairfield Christian Academy got into the playoffs on the strength of a six-game winning streak after a 1-3 start under first-year coach B.J. Queen, who had previously served as an assistant at Grandview Heights.
"The school has been in the playoffs two other times, but this feels really good," Queen said. "Our senior class has been to the playoffs three of the last four years, so that's a heck of an accomplishment for them. Now, we're just looking to do better than we've done in the past."
Fairfield Christian and Shadyside met in the 2011 regular season with the Tigers winning, 30-7, so there is a level of familiarity between the programs.
"I watched that (2011) film and they were very physical," Queen said.
When it comes to preparing for Fairfield Christian, the Tigers may need a few minutes to adjust because of the wing-T offense employed by the Knights.
"It's tough to simulate during the week because you can see the play and formation drawn up on the board and see it walked through, but not at the full game speed at which they're doing it," Holenka said. "They've got speed and they can play physical. We'll have to get back to playing assignment football."
Leading the way for the Fairfield Christian attack is senior running back Ben Tobin. He's gained more than 1,300 yards and scored 10 touchdowns in the new system. As the workhorse tailback a season ago, Tobin gained an eye-opening 2,931 and scored 32 touchdowns in 10 games.
"Tobin is a legitimate concern," Holenka said. "You run for that many yards, I don't care who you're playing, that's a lot of running. He's built low to the ground with a low center of gravity. He moves like a tailback, but he has more of a fullback build."
The Fairfield Christian quarterback is Jeremiah Lee, who's thrown for seven touchdowns and 600 yards.
"We've not run him as much as we could," Queen said. "He's done a great job for us, getting us in and out of things well. We've given him a lot of freedom to audible and things."
The speedster of the offense is Jake Walker, who has ran for more than 800 yards. Caleb Walz has added better than 500 yards and Lane Phoman is another viable threat.
"They have guys who are capable," Holenka said. "Plus, we have to respect the pass. I am not sure the quarterback would do well in a true drop-back system, but he's proficient enough to where he can make people pay."
The Shadyside defense is led by a stout defensive line that includes ends Eric Howell and Scott Hammond. They've teamed for 26.5 sacks. Howell has 55 tackles.
Defensive tackle Zach Meadows has been a wrecking crew as well. He's accumulated 54 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Cory Banco gets the call at the other defensive tackle spot.
The Tigers' linebacking corp is led by senior Chris Littell, Jake Duvall and Matt Krupa, who leads the way with 57 tackles.
The secondary, which was a concern prior to the season, has developed well for the Tigers. It's made up of Austin Dorris, Luke Nardo, Logan Price and Robert Newhart. The quartet has made six interceptions.
The Shadyside offense has been scoring and racking up rush yards in bunches. They average 42.2 points and 334.3 yards rushing per game.
"We'll have a size advantage on the line, but they're not small," Holenka said. "They play a three-man front and they're pretty good at what they do. You can tell they're a well-coached team."
The Tigers offense is led Dorris at quarterback, Howell at running back and Littell at fullback.
Dorris, an all-Ohio candidate who is drawing Division I attention, has run for 1,036 yards and 16 touchdowns on 107 carries. His passing game has improved. He's thrown for 591 yards and six touchdowns.
Littell finished the regular season with 953 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing a game with a hand injury. He's also caught a team-high 14 balls for 268 and four touchdowns.
Howell has ran 138 times for 879 yards and scored a team-high 19 touchdowns.
"This is certainly going to be a smash-mouth affair," Queen said. "They're very strong at what they do. It's not real fancy, but it's awful tough to stop. They're big and physical. Plus, you go to that part of the state and you can tell how important high school football is."
The Tigers backfield has been so successful because of the rugged offensive line in front of them that's been impressive all season.
The group is led by Banco, Meadows, Colton Campbell, Hunter Hammond and Jacob Spencer.
Duvall, Hammond and Nardo are the other options at wide receiver. Combined, they've caught 18 passes.
Tobin is the leading tackler for the Knights from his middle linebacker post.