If I would've told you that against the reigning Division II state runner up in Massillon, Warren G. Harding was going to force the first turnover, score the first touchdown, force a three and out on their first defensive possession to giuve themselves a chance to go up two scores early in the game, eventually have junior Jabari Felton record the first sack of Aidan Longwell that the Tigers have allowed this season, etc., Raider fans would taken that deal in a heartbeat and trust that things would play out for the better.
Unfortunately, after Harding's next drive stalled 34 yards shy of the end zone, Massillon scored touchdowns on their next three possessions. Even after that strong barrage from the Tigers, the Raiders would grab the momentum by forcing them to turn the ball over on downs at the Harding 29-yard line. Unfortunately on the ensuing drive, Massillon scored on a 50-yard interception return that put them up 28-7 going into halftime. The Raiders never recovered as the Tigers would ultimately finish the game with 49 unanswered points to secure a 49-7 victory. Harding head coach Steve Arnold has never been one for moral victories, not even against arguably one of the best teams, in any division, in all of Ohio in the Massillon Tigers. However, now that he knows where his Raiders stand against the elite in Ohio, him and his staff can figure out how to take the aforementioned positives from the game and apply them for four quarters.
The offensive weapons are definitely there as quarterback Elijah Taylor already has 476 yards and 5 touchdown passes, senior Ty Artis has hauled in six catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns, sophomore Tyirq Ivory continues to show promise with his 13 catches for 164 yards and 3 touchdowns, Brandon Arnold is averaging 27.7 yards per catch, etc. while both Elizah Smith & Marcus Brown have both been productive at running back, etc. Defensively, nine different Raiders have already recorded at least one tackle for a loss, which is led by Felton's 6.5 and between Cavin Stouffer's punting and Noah Murry's accurate kicking, special teams is the last thing that the Raiders are worried about. They'll look to improve on all of those aspects against a familiar foe that has provided one of the best "feel good" stories of the entire area.
One common denominator that is shared by both Warren City Schools and Austintown-Fitch is the impact that the late Phil Annarella Jr. had on both communities. Sadly, he passed away unexpectedly on June 8, 2019 from natural causes. He dedicated 48 of his 70 years of life to coaching the game of football as he compiled a career record of 246-146-3. His career stops included East Liverpool, Youngstown Rayen, Warren Western Reserve, Warren G. Harding, Hickory (Hermitage, Pa.), Niles McKinley, and of course, Austintown Fitch. Coach Annarella was Reserve's longest tenured and all-time winningest coach as he compiled a record of 59-30-2 from 1981 to 1989, which awarded him the head coaching job at Harding after the consolidation in 1990. That year, he led the Raiders to a 14-0 record and the second state playoff championship in the school's history, which led to a #5 finish in the USA Today Top 25 High School Football Poll. Most recently, he served as the head coach at Fitch where he led the Falcons to playoff appearances in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2018. 2013 was a special year for the Falcons' program as it's the only 10-0 regular season in Fitch history.
Despite the tragic loss of Annarella, he's currently in his Heavenly home smiling down on his Falcons. The foundation that he spent 12 years laying at Fitch continues to hold strong as interim head coach Jon Elliot has begun the season with three double-digit victories over Erie (PA) (48-26), Youngstown Ursuline (27-7), and Canton Glenoak (49-27). Most recently, they used a powerful ground attack to overwhelm Glenoak in their house with 432 of their 580 yards and seven touchdowns. Previously in week 2, they welcomed back their old football rivalry with Ursuline (first match-up since 2002) by holding the Irish to (-34) yards rushing with they gained 270 of their 361 yards on the ground. Most of this production is courtesy of the potent dual-quarterback combo of Nate Leskovac and Devin Sherwood. Their versatility has been a key factor in keeping opposing defenses off balance and allowing the Falcons to utilize their speed across the field. Tyree Mitchell and Jameire Robinson also get a lot of carries for the Falcons while guys the likes of Todd Simons, Kyree Long, Tyler Evans, and Jude Burksell are big threats at the wide receiver position.
Historically, a rivalry can't get much tighter than Harding vs. Fitch. The Raiders enter Friday's game with an all-time record of 15-14 against the Falcons and a slight 531-525 scoring advantage. That's very fitting as these two programs share such a great connection in Annarella, who will certainly never be forgotten in either Warren or Austintown. As the Raiders looks to rebounds from their tough loss and Fitch will look to continue their hot start, Friday's game will serve as a reminder than both communities were lucky to have been blessed by the presence of Annarella. May you continue to rest in peace.