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When the football coaches from the new Three Rivers Athletic Conference gathered at the Whitmer auditorium in early August, their preseason poll revealed that no one was pointing to Oct. 7 as a first-place showdown for the top title contenders.
Nonetheless, sole possession of first place in the TRAC will be at stake tomorrow when fourth-ranked Whitmer travels to Findlay.
Both teams enter at 6-0 overall, 3-0 in the TRAC, and with plenty of momentum.
Half of this matchup in the new TRAC was projected.
Whitmer was coming off of back-to-back City League championships and a trip to the Division I state playoff semifinals. The Panthers were a slight title favorite over last year's CL runner-up, St. John's Jesuit, a team they needed a late touchdown to topple 14-10 in last year's D-I regional final.
Whitmer finished 12-2, St. John's 11-2, and both teams returned significant personnel this season. This first TRAC showdown came Sept. 23, when the host Panthers dominated St. John's 35-7.
"I'm very happy with where we're at because, truthfully, we've had five to six kids at different times who were supposed to be starters who were out," sixth-year Whitmer coach Joe Palka said. "We've had a lot of new kids step in, and we've continued to execute at a high level. We're going to be challenged this week to do that even more."
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In the preseason, Findlay was voted for a fifth-place tie in the eight-team conference.
While Whitmer has played true to projected form, steamrolling its first six opponents by an average score of 45-3, Findlay has far surpassed its prognostication by keeping pace. The Trojans have topped their six opponents 41-12 per game.
Sixth-year coach Mark Ritzler's team -- which was 5-5 overall and Greater Buckeye Conference runner-up in 2010 with a 4-1 mark -- has clicked offensively, defensively and on special teams through six weeks.
"If you talk to any high school coach, one year is so different than the next," Ritzler said, "even if you have a [large] group of seniors coming back who are experienced players.
"I remember in 2002 and 2005, years we ended up making the playoffs, even then we didn't really know what we had until we got out there on the field.
"Am I surprised? Sure. It's been a while  since we've been 6-0. But, after watching our play on film, I think we're where we're supposed to be right now. We've done the things we're supposed to do, the kids have made plays, and they're playing hard. You do that and you have a chance to be in every ballgame."
If few took notice after Findlay's first four games, which included a 47-6 thumping of Lima Senior in the TRAC opener on Sept. 16, more paid attention the last two weeks. The Trojans thumped visiting Central Catholic 31-7, then handled St. Francis 35-7 at the Glass Bowl.
"We knew how well-coached they were and what kind of program they have," Palka said of Findlay. "They won four of their last five games last year.
"It's a credit to them that they're where they're at right now. They have a strong junior class that's pretty athletic, and they're just making a lot of plays and believing in themselves right now."
Findlay's belief starts with an offense that averages 417 yards per game.
Quarterback Paul Cosiano is 56-of-80 passing for 1,010 yards and eight touchdowns. The Trojans' "running" quarterback, Austin Niswander has rushed for 243 yards to go with 174 passing.
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The top running back has been Vance Settlemire (75 carries, 462 yards, 7 TDs), and Findlay's leading receivers are Dylan Blunk (18 catches, 355 yards, 3 TDs) and Jimmy Orwick (23 catches, 344 yards, 5 TDs).
"They don't have too many two-way players, so they're going to stay fresh," Palka said. "The thing that we're concerned about is that they try to get people in [open] space and use their athleticism and speed, some of the same types of things that we try to do.
"I think containing their running quarterback, containing their running back and dealing with their screen game are all issues we have to worry about. You don't see them missing blocks very often. Everybody's on the right guy, and what they do offensively is very precision oriented."
The Findlay defense, which has limited foes to 194 yards a game, has been paced by linebackers Devin Dennard (41 tackles, team-high 11 for losses), Ben Kupferberg (34 tackles, team-high four sacks) and Luke Coale (34 tackles).
"You talk about a big game and yes, this is a big game," Ritzler said. "Central Catholic was the biggest game we've had in a few years, and then after that, once we won, the game with St. Francis meant a little bit more. Now, Whitmer means even more. When you have big games and you win them, that means the next one's going to be even bigger. That's kind of where we're at.
"Obviously Whitmer's a great team and our biggest challenge, by far, to date. But I think our kids are excited, and from what I've seen so far we're looking forward to the challenge."
The Trojans will need to be at their best against a Panther squad rich in talent, and highlighted by its two returning All-Ohio first-teamers - senior running back Jody Webb and senior University of Michigan-bound defensive end Chris Wormley.
Webb has carried 72 times for 583 yards and scored 13 total TDs to pace a Whitmer offense that averages 338 yards per game.
"We really just have to go in there with a play-hard attitude because we don't know much about them," Webb said of Findlay. "We hear that they don't have many weaknesses, so we can't go in there with a certain attitude [of overconfidence].
"If we get up, we've got to keep our foot on the pedal. When you're a winning team and all you do is practice to win, you can't worry about losing. You do what you're supposed to do, and you don't change your game plan."
Senior quarterback Tyler Smith, pressed into service after junior Tyler Palka was injured in week 4, has completed 13-of-22 passes for 199 yards and two TDs, and rushed for 74 yards and a score in his two starts.
The Panthers' top receivers have been Alonzo Lucas (18 catches, 220 yards, 3 TDs) and 6-foot-7 basketball standout Nigel Hayes (six catches, 141 yards, 2 TDs).
The agile 6-foot-6, 270-pound Wormley has 36 tackles, including team highs of 11 tackles for loss and four sacks. Along with linemen Nick Lapoint and Marquise Moore, Wormley anchors a balanced defense which has recorded three shutouts and yielded a single TD in its three other games.
"I like how we play, and the way we run and hit," Wormley said of the stingy unit. "We've got great matchups with our line, linebackers and the backfield - all the way around.
"We haven't played Findlay since I've been here, so I didn't know too much about them. I thought they were a decent team, but not a 6-0 team like they are now. We just need to play our type of football. If we do what we've done the past six weeks, we should be all right."
Linebackers Jack Linch (team-high 54 tackles, 9 for losses), Nate Holley (50 tackles, 3 sacks) and Devin Thomas (40 tackles, 9 for losses) hold down the middle wave, and the fleet secondary is paced by standout senior safeties Mark Meyers (39 tackles) and Garrett Clarke (29 tackles), and cornerback LeRoy Alexander (2 interceptions).
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com or 419-724-6461.