Against the Wellston Golden Rockets that is.
That’s because the Ironmen have captured 16 straight meetings against their archrivals, beginning with the 1990 season.
On Friday night at Jackson’s Alumni Stadium, the longtime Jackson County foes will do battle once again, as Jackson and Wellston meet for the 93rd time on the high school gridiron.
The last time the Rockets defeated Jackson, in 1989, the victory came on the road at the former Jackson High School football field.
However, most of the current Wellston players were not even born then.
The expectations in Wellston, like they are every August, are that this is indeed the year in which the Rockets snap that lengthy losing streak.
The Blue and Gold has had its chances, including four straight years in this decade in which Jackson has won by a combined total of 28 points.
In the last three meetings, though, Wellston has failed to post an offensive touchdown, as it’s only points came on a Jacob Walburn kickoff return for a score last season.
Hence, the Ironmen have recorded victories of 55-0, 14-0 and 28-7 the past three years.
However, those triumphs, as well as all of Jackson’s victories in the 1990s, mean nothing come Friday. The Ironmen own the all-time series by a lopsided 62-25-6 total.
“You have to throw that streak out,” said Jackson coach Shane Wolford, preparing for his third Jackson-Wellston clash as the head coach. “We’ve beat them several years in a row, but that doesn’t mean anything for this year. I’m sure that they are sick of losing to us and that’s one thing that should propel them. As for us, our kids look at it as a big rivalry. Any time you’re eight miles from each other, you know the kids and you have to see each other. And our kids don’t want to be the first team to lose to them.”
Wolford himself has never lost to the Rockets, either as a star running back for the Ironmen in the mid-to-late 1990s or as an assistant coach. He has served on the staff since 1998, including the previous two as the head coach.
His counterpart — Jason Mantell — makes his debut with Wellston on Friday. Mantell, an assistant at Wellston three years ago, takes over the program for Heath Hinton. The new Rocket boss returns to the Blue and Gold after two years as the coach at Manchester.
Mantell was on Hinton’s staff in that 2004 contest — the 55-0 drubbing in Hinton’s first game. The Golden Rockets struggled with their midline option offense, crossed midfield only twice and doomed themselves with turnovers.
“That was the most disappointing loss of my life,” said Mantell. “It was the worst loss I’ve ever sustained — player, coach or otherwise.”
Then, in the first half of last year’s tilt, the Rockets drove inside the 20-yard-line three times, only to emerge with zero points.
“If you look at last year, in my opinion, Wellston had the upper hand most of the first half, and just couldn’t put it in the end zone,” added Mantell.
Now, as the head coach, he hopes that his first bout against Jackson turns out quite the opposite.
“Not scoring an offensive touchdown in three years against them is unacceptable,” said Mantell. “I know Heath was disappointed in that. But good teams don’t turn the ball over, good teams score inside the 20.”
Already, Mantell’s offense is much different than Hinton’s.
This year, the Golden Rockets feature the jet-option spread, operating with four or five wide receivers, a single back in the backfield and out of the shotgun.
It’s quite the contrast from previous Wellston teams, which traditionally have relied on the running attack.
“Anytime you go into a situation where someone doesn’t know what you’re doing, it’s an advantage if you make it an advantage,” said Mantell of the Rockets’ new look. “If you watch our offense, it’s a lot of timing, but it needs some work. It’s a new adjustment for Jackson, so we try to use that in our favor.”
Wolford said that although the style is new for Wellston, his Ironmen aren’t unfamiliar with it. Some of Jackson’s opponents in the Southeastern Ohio Athletic League — namely Chillicothe, Portsmouth and Marietta — are known for the spread.
“It’s different than what we’re used to seeing from them,” said the Jackson mentor of the new Wellston offense. “They are spreading it out quite a bit and running a lot of things that we see throughout the year from other teams. It’s not something new to us, because a lot of the teams in the SEOAL run this type of offense. But facing them, it’s a lot different from what we’ve seen from them in the past.”
In particular, the Ironmen must account for junior running back Matt Lockard. Lockard, along with junior center Kevin King, are the only two returning starters for the Rockets.
Lockard is a threat both rushing and receiving, and even opened the preseason at quarterback. But, he has since switched back to running back, a role in which he is more familiar and more comfortable with.
“Matt is a running back by trade, by heart, by desire,” said Mantell. “Cody (Wilkett) said he wanted to play quarterback. We tried him there in camp and Cody really stepped up. It was obvious they needed to switch places. Matt wanted to be running back, Cody wanted to be quarterback, and it was obvious who looked more comfortable where.”
“We’re going to account and know where he’s at all the time,” said Wolford of Lockard. “I’m sure they’ll probably do some different things with him against us. He’s a good player and we’ll have to keep him in check. We have to be prepared for some of this new stuff that they are going to throw at us.”
New stuff indeed, along with new sophomore starters for the Rockets. Cody Wilkett is the quarterback along with Ryan Darnell and Derrick Seymour out of the backfield and Jeff Matteson at wide receiver. Seymour is a transfer from Vinton County.
“You have to really fly to the football, because a lot of the stuff that they run is to the outside,” said Wolford. “We’ve got to get our defensive line going and be able to put some pressure on the quarterback.”
Wellston also replaces, with the exception of King, all of its starters along the offensive and defensive lines.
The Ironmen are also reloading at several positions, having lost 14 total starters, including six on offense.
Wolford admitted that the offensive line is an area of concern due to four graduation losses. Only senior guard Wiliam Tomblin, a full-time starter last year, and tackle Chris Trent, a part-time starter, return.
“We have a lot of kids that are inexperienced on the lines. We’re doing a lot of little things wrong right now, and that’s the biggest disappointment for me,” said Wolford. “In the scrimmage against Wheelersburg, we made a lot of mental mistakes. Lining up offsides, a lot of holding penalties. If we keep shooting ourselves in the foot, it just won’t be good for us. We have to get better at the little things.”
But the Ironmen aren’t changing what they do best, which is run the football straight ahead.
“Against anyone we play, that’s what we’re going to do,” said Wolford. “We’ll try and grind it out with them and wear them down. We’ll take anything we get, but we love to run the football and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Running the football for Jackson will be senior fullback Bruce Smith. Smith, en route to Division III all-district Special Mention honors last season, had a breakout game against Wellston.
In last season’s 28-7 triumph, Smith shouldered the load and rushed for 127 yards on 15 carries, including 94 yards on nine tries in the second half. With Jackson leading 7-0 late in the third quarter, Smith broke loose for a 42-yard touchdown run to give the Red and White some breathing room.
“When you have Bruce Smith back there carrying the ball for you, anything can happen,” said Wolford. “He runs very, very hard.”
Mantell said the Rockets must not only limit the Jackson ground game, but keep the Ironmen ball-control offense off the field. The Red and White would like nothing better than to run the football, amass long scoring drives and dominate in time of possession.
“It’s the same thing they did when I played and coached at Wheelersburg and we scrimmaged them then,” said Mantell of Jackson’s offensive philosophy. “They’re going to pound it at you. We’re an up-tempo offense. We definitely want to control the ball. If we don’t, and they get control of it, then we’re in trouble. We can not let them pound it at us. Usually, a Jackson team isn’t going to rip off a bunch of 30-plus-yard plays. They’re going to beat you down if you let them. No one is going to completely stop their running attack. We have to slow them down, contain them and make them throw. We can’t give them second-and-short or third-and-short opportunities. We want to put them in second-and-long and third-and-long.”
Or else, if the Rockets fail to generate a line surge, “it’s going to be a long night.”
For Wellston, it’s been 16 straight long nights of losing to Jackson. Does the streak stop on Friday, or do the Ironmen extend the dubious mark to 17?
“We have to believe we can do it (defeat Jackson), we have to know we can do it,” said Mantell. “I told the kids that Jackson believes and they know in their minds that they are going to win. We need our kids to be thinking the same thing. Losing 16 in a row, that’s unacceptable. It’s been a disappointment for a decade-and-a-half. I always look at a rivalry as both teams winning sometimes. We need to start holding up our end of the bargain.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at Alumni Stadium.