Madonna Playing With Nothing to Lose
WEIRTON — No matter what happens on Saturday, Madonna already knows 2020 is a successful season, and nothing can take that away from them.
The Blue Dons are 7-2 and currently are riding a six-game winning streak. They are the 15th-seeded team in the Class A playoffs and travel to No. 2 seed Greenbrier West for a 7:30 p.m. contest Saturday. They improved from a 6-4-1 mark a season ago and captured the program’s first OVAC title since 2013.
Quite simply, Madonna has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Head coach Dan Rovira is the first person to say that.
“A a lot of the guys are upset that Tug Valley got the top seed and only played three games, while we’re 7-2 and only 15th. I get it, but we can’t forget about the (coronavirus) here,” he said. “I just saw that Hancock County had 32 cases the other day. Be happy that we played nine games. Imagine if we didn’t — the seniors would’ve lost the whole year.
“We just have to put things in perspective. We’re going to go down on Saturday, play our butts off and whatever happens, happens.”
It is a little alarming that Madonna is only the 15th seed, but that is mainly due to strength of schedule. Its lone game canceled this year was a Week 8 home matchup against three-time defending champion Wheeling Central.
“Without the virus being here, I think we could be a little higher because we played nine games, while other teams played only three or four. But, it is what it is,” Rovira said. “We’re happy to get 10 games in, and our kids should be loose. We have nothing to lose. We made the playoffs and won the OVAC. This is extra.
“If we would’ve won (against Wheeling Central), we’d definitely be up there, but here’s the problem. If we lose that game, we probably be knocked out (of the playoffs). It looked like it at least.”
The Blue Dons no longer are looking back and have focused their attention on Greenbrier West (8-0), a team that has rushed for 2,487 yards and 46 touchdowns, with only five fumbles. It also has 10 TDs through the air but eight interceptions.
“They’re a run-first team. Their tailback is a big guy at about 230 (pounds). Side car next to him is about 220,” Rovira said. “They also have some big linemen. I don’t know if Santino (Arlia) can pass around those guys. Hopefully, it’s going to be a shootout because I know if it won’t be a low-scoring game. If it’s a low-scoring game, we’re in trouble. We need to score as much as we can.
“What hurts us is our size. You look at us out there, and some of our linemen look like skilled guys. Two of our tackles are only 170. It is what it is, but I can guarantee we will fight until the end no matter what happens.”
Noah Brown leads Greenbrier with 911 rushing yards on 116 carries (113.9 average per game) and 20 total scores. Levi Weikle has 58 rushes for 406 yards and three touchdowns. Kaiden Pack is its quarterback, and he is 53 of 89 for 917 yards.
“We’re very excited. We’re just happy that we were able to come out and play this year,” senior Lucky Pulice said. “We’re happy to be back in the playoffs after being here last year. I think we have a good chance. The matchup looks really well, and I think it’s going to be a good game.
“I think our secondary, our playmakers can out-play Greenbrier’s. Their line is tough, but I think we can come out with a win.”
Madonna’s defense has improved vastly since Rovira “fired himself” after Week 2. It is allowing just 20 points and 205.9 points per contest, both topping the Daily Times/Herald-Star coverage area.
In the secondary, Pulice has 60 tackles, four for a loss, four pass breakups, three interceptions, a blocked punt for a TD and a punt return for another score. Thomas Sessi has 56 tackles, five for a loss, five PBUs and four picks. Colton Littleton has 25 tackles and an INT, while Evan Quering has added six tackles and a pair of PBUs.
“We’ve really turned it up since (Week 2),” Daniels said regarding the defense. “We moved a few guys around and were able to find something that works for us. We’ve really played well since then. I was at linebacker for the first few games, then switched to defensive end. I’m having fun.
“We’ve really picked up the intensity this year. The coaching staff was really good last year, but we made a few changes, and they’ve been good changes. We like what we’ve done so far.”
When discussing Daniels as a defensive end and even his role as a fullback, the first word that came to Rovira’s mind was toughness.
“When I got the job, he wasn’t playing. I think the last time he played was his sophomore year, and they told me right away we had to get him on the field,” Rovira said. “For most of either the small or big schools, most wrestlers play (football). They have character and they’re tough, mentally tough. I had to talk to him and convinced him that we’re running the program the right way, and he came out.”
Pulice was another athlete who was not playing right away. He joined the Blue Dons halfway through last season and may have planned on doing the same this year, too.
“It was a little tough with Lucky when I got here,” Rovira said. “They said he comes out late every year, and I told him I can’t have that. I told all of the guys that things are changing. If you come out after August, you’re not welcomed. I know it hurts our numbers, but I can’t let them do that because everyone works their tails off during the summer, then somebody joining late makes it easier for them.
“He bought in from Day 1, and it shows. He’s been a great leader. His personality’s great. He’s kind of a goof ball, but he’s a great guy.”
Another player Rovira raved about is linebacker Anthony Gross, who took over the linebacker spot from Daniels. He only has 20 tackles, but that’s because he started later in the season.
“He transferred from another school and just got better every day,” Rovira said. “For a while we kept saying he wasn’t ready for this game or ready for that game. Finally, we said he was ready. We put him in the Mathews game (two weeks ago), and he’s been playing here and there. He’s been ready, and it’s worked out for us.”
Offensively, Pulice is Arlia’s No. 1 target with 48 receptions for 733 yards and six touchdowns. He’s at least the top receiver in terms of stats. Sessi may have something to say about that.
“(Sessi) and I always go back and forth as to who’s the No. 1 receiver,” Pulice said. “Each week it changes. Two weeks ago it was me, and last week it was him.”
Sessi has 26 catches for 487 yards and five scores. His biggest contribution is in the run game, with 561 yards on 83 carries and 10 TDs.
“Last year with the addition of Brennan Secrist, he took up a lot of catches and plays from Sessi,” Pulice said. “He also broke his hand and missed a good portion of the season. It’s hard to catch with a broken finger. Without Brennan taking away some of Sessi’s touches, I think he’s doing a very good job and has filled that role very well.”
Whoever is getting the ball, it is coming from Arlia, the junior quarterback. He only has completed 110 of 212 attempts but leads the area with 2,043 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“I always tell the kids you never know what will happen, but if you watch film from last year to this years, we’re so much better,” Rovira said. “Our kids have improved so much, and that’s my main goal. I don’t care about the record so much; I just want them to become better football players and better men. Some people think I’m crazy, but that’s the truth.”
Another difference from 2019 is the Blue Dons are more confident this season. They were the 16th seed a year ago and were coming off a tie in the regular season finale.
Maybe it is because they really feel like there is nothing to lose. It also may help that they have a few extra days off because this regular season’s finale came on a Wednesday night. Maybe Rovira isn’t so crazy after all.
“I’m excited for it. In the playoffs, anything can happen,” Daniels said. “I know that they’re seeded higher than us, but that doesn’t matter to us. They are another football team, we’re going to go after them and it’s going to be fun.
“They have a few big kids, but that doesn’t mean anything. We know we’re a physical team, and we’re just going to go after them.”