Moments after the Canal Winchester High School football team got an early leg up in the OCC-Capital Division race with a 30-28 win at New Albany in its league opener Sept. 28, coach Josh Stratton was quick to remind his team that the victory will gain extra meaning if more wins follow.
The Indians' next game promises to be emotional as they play host to Groveport on Friday, Oct. 5.
"We have to take care of business," said Stratton, whose team is 5-1 overall, having won five consecutive games since a season-opening 34-21 loss to Thomas Worthington on Aug. 24. "We cannot get complacent, trust me. When you are playing well is when you have to press them. I am a firm believer in that. The better we play, the harder we have to practice.
"(Groveport is) our big rival. No. 1 on our (program) list is beating them. No. 2 is to win our league, third is to make the playoffs and fourth is to make a playoff run. If we achieve the second goal, we have to achieve the first."
Groveport comes in at 3-3 overall after opening OCC-Capital play with a 48-6 rout of visiting Franklin Heights on Sept. 28. The Cruisers had entered the game coming off back-to-back shutout losses to defending Division I state champion Pickerington Central (33-0 on Sept. 14) and 2017 Division I state semifinalist Olentangy Liberty (30-0 on Sept. 21).
"This is a week where we don't have to say anything to our kids. It's a different week," Cruisers coach Bryan Schoon-over said. "They're 10 minutes down the road. It doesn't matter what their record is or what our record is. They got a big win last week over New Albany and we're going to have our hands full."
Canal Winchester freshman running back Stephan Byrd rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries against New Albany and took a screen pass 74 yards in the first quarter to set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Tyler Toledo.
Byrd scored from 5 yards out in the third quarter to give the Indians a 27-7 lead before holding off a furious New Albany rally. The Eagles scored two touchdowns in a five-minute span of the fourth quarter but a would-be game-tying two-point conversion try fell short with 1 minute, 9 seconds to play.
Led by quarterback/wide receiver Elijah Aekins and slotbacks Emmanuel Anthony and Jalil Underdown, Groveport is 3-3 for the second time in three years.
"Groveport has some of the best athletes in the whole city. They are big, physical and fast, and they're good enough to pull off some big wins," Stratton said. "You look at them on film and they have some dudes to contend with."
Canal Winchester defeated Groveport 24-7 last year to break a two-game losing streak to the Cruisers. Groveport leads the all-time series 17-12.
The Indians were projected to be seventh in Division II, Region 7 computer ratings this week. The top eight teams in the region make the playoffs.
"We're excited to play them and I'm sure they're excited to play us," Schoonover said. "Our teams might not like each other, but that said, we have tremendous respect for each other. We won last week, but we will have to play 10 times better to beat these guys. We'll see what happens."