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Team effort has led Fitch to 2013 playoffs

November 8, 2013
By MIKE McLAIN - Tribune Chronicle (mmclain@tribtoday.com) , Underthelights

AUSTINTOWN - Include Fitch Falcons coach Phil Annarella among those who approve of the expansion of the divisions for the football playoffs.

Annarella certainly has to like the odds for qualification. Last year eight of 32 teams in Division I, Region 1 advanced to the playoffs. This year 16 of 35 teams in Region 1 are in the playoffs.

The odds, however, really didn't affect the 10-0 Falcons, who host the 7-3 Marysville Monarchs in a first-round game Saturday at 7 p.m. Teams as talented as Fitch would qualify in any year, which was proven by its final ranking of fourth in Region 1.

The Falcons concluded the school's first ever undefeated regular season with a 19-14 win over Cardinal Mooney last Friday. The achievement was reached by a concerted effort of a team that doesn't have a lot of individual stars.

"I think it was big, being that the school had never done it before," Annarella said of going 10-0. "It's hard to believe that the school had never gone 10-0 before. They've had great teams in the past.

"This is a good team. That's the thing that stands out the most. They play so well as a unit. It's been true ever since day one."

Annarella knew he would have to count heavily on junior running back Darrin Hall and a defense that was missing All-Ohio lineman Billy Price, who is a freshman at Ohio State. There were still some issues that had to be worked out at quarterback, where junior Antwan Harris and senior Gabe Chepke were in the mix.

The quarterbacks have shared time, but Harris has been a catalyst with his rushing skills. Hall is the leading rusher with 1,293 yards. Harris joined the 1,000-yard club against Mooney and will enter the playoffs with 1,079 yards.

While the Falcons will try to control play on the ground, the Monarchs are expected to work the passing game behind the arm of quarterback Matt Mulholland.

"They're kind of a combination between Dover and Massillon," Annarella said. "They have a great quarterback. He probably averages between 30 or 40 passes a game. He threw 66 in one game. (Stopping the pass) hasn't been a strength of ours. We need to shore that up, and we'll be OK."

Marysville, which is located about 30 miles northwest of Columbus, has played some of the best Division I teams in that area, including Hilliard Davidson, Dublin Coffman and Upper Arlington. All of their losses were to those three perennial powers.

The Falcons also have played a demanding schedule as an independent. Their stiffest challenge came against Division II playoff qualifier Massillon, which staged a late rally that came up short in a 30-27 loss.

"We've seen quite a diversity of teams because we're independent," Annarella said. "We seem to get everybody's 'A' game throughout the year, so our kids genuinely believe they're battle-tested."

The change in the divisional system meant just two regions in Division I instead of four. Each region encompasses a larger area, which can result in long drives for the traveling team in the first round.

Marysville is approximately a three-hour drive from Fitch High School. Annarella is glad that the Falcons will be at home awaiting the arrival of the Monarchs instead of climbing on a bus for the long drive.

"I do think it makes a difference," Annarella said. "I told our staff I'm sure glad we don't have to make that drive. Not that it's a huge factor, but it's a factor. It's not like us driving to Boardman or Youngstown State."

The Falcons would be glad to travel anywhere the Ohio High School Athletic Association sends them next week.