West Liberty-Salem’s Braden Miller (left) tackles Kenton Ridge’s Kobe Holtz (right) during a kickoff return in a nonconference game on Friday night. Bryant Billing/Contributor

High School Football: WL-Salem seeks seventh straight playoff berth

“Back in 2013 we had five returning starters and those guys had a fantastic year,” West Liberty-Salem coach Dan McGill said of the team that reached the regional finals. “I don’t think you change your goals or your expectations. I think that sends the wrong message to the kids. We believe it doesn’t matter what you have coming in. It matters what you do in the week to prepare. It matters what you do on Friday nights. … I think they’re well aware of the formula that hard work and focus usually gets you the results you want.”

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For the Tigers that means the playoffs. West Liberty-Salem has qualified for the postseason six straight seasons and 11 of the past 13. To get there again the Tigers will have to navigate a restructured Ohio Heritage Conference. The league split into North and South divisions with the addition of Fairbanks, West Jefferson, Madison Plains and Greenon.

West Liberty-Salem joins Fairbanks, Mechanicsburg, Northeastern, Triad and West Jefferson in the North. Catholic Central, Cedarville, Greeneview, Greenon, Madison Plains and Southeastern make up the South.

“I think whoever comes out on top is definitely a deserving champion,” McGill said his North Division. “I think it’s wide open.”

Seniors Trevor Burden and Tevon McNutt return key experience on the lines. Burden is 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds and McNutt is 6-0 and 245.

Senior Braden Miller should see the bulk of the carries at running back and plays linebacker on defense. Senior Levi Moell brings experience at wide receiver and defensive back. The Tigers have 45 players, and of them eight are seniors and six are juniors.

“The play of the defensive line is going to be a strength for us. The running game with Braden and the offensive line we’ve put together will be a strength,” McGill said. “Both (Burden and McNutt) are going to shore up the offensive and defensive lines for us. They’ve both played a lot of football.

“We have a lot of young guys competing hard in camp and through scrimmages. That’s been positive because camp has been very competitive. That’s always nice to see. Guys are getting after it. At the same time you want to see guys without experience gaining that as quickly as they can and that comes through repetition. I think the guys we have slotted in positions are talented players, we just need to get them experience quick.”

West Liberty-Salem opens with Graham and Benjamin Logan in non-league games. Cedarville, Catholic Central and Greenon are OHC crossover games. The first division game is Week 6 against rival Mechanicsburg and followed by Triad, Fairbanks, West Jefferson and Northeastern.

Last season West Liberty-Salem started 2-4 before rallying to win the final four regular-season games and grab the eighth and final playoff spot in Division VI, Region 24. The reward was a first-round playoff date with eventual state champion Marion Local, which the Flyers won 34-7.

Three teams on this season’s schedule had winning records in 2016: Ben Logan (9-2), Catholic Central (6-4) and Mechanicsburg (12-1). Northeastern finished 5-5.

The Tigers aren’t taking any opponent for granted but the start of this season’s schedule might not be as grueling. Valley View (10-2) and Kenton Ridge (5-5) dropped off the schedule with more OHC crossover games. Greenon (0-10), Fairbanks (2-8) and West Jefferson (4-6) are new OHC additions. Graham (2-8) is also a new addition.

“We talk about the leadership and the hard work the teams of the past few years have had,” McGill said. “We talk about the legacy of coming to work every day, doing your job and improve. That carries over well beyond your playing days. So far I think this team has listened to and embraced those messages.”

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