Ciota can carry load for SJ-O
ST. JOSEPH — Orion Ciota is one of those rare athletes whose name is easier to spell than it is to pronounce. That is, unless it’s done phonetically.
As St. Joseph-Ogden’s football team continues its postseason run, the junior tailback has found himself in a position of prominence. Public address announcers, radio broadcasters, television commentators and podcasters alike have been challenged.
That’s O-ryan Show-tee, but he has learned to answer to many callings.
“No one gets it right,” Ciota said, “unless they know my family.”
There will be more opportunities for his name to be mentioned Saturday, when SJ-O plays a Class 3A state semifinal game at 2 p.m. in Greenville. This is the second week in a row SJ-O has taken on a higher-ranked, undefeated opponent.
It’s more important now than ever to be accurate. A person who didn’t expect to become familiar with the end zone this fall — especially the exquisitely painted checkerboard one at SJ-O — has practically made it a second home, scoring nine touchdowns in his first four games as a full-time starter on offense.
“Honestly, no, I didn’t think I had the talent to do what I’ve done,” Ciota said.
What he has done is enable the Spartans’ offense to not miss a beat after senior rushing leader Austin Hedrick was sidelined for the year in Week 8 with an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
“My first thought? ‘Time to grow up. Those are big shoes to fill,’ ” Ciota said.
One person who has willingly assisted is Hedrick.
“He tells me little things to help, like ‘Hold the ball with two hands,’ ” Ciota said.
Hedrick made another point, which Ciota has taken to heart.
“He said, ‘Don’t try to dance around. Start trying to run people over,’ ” Ciota said.
Saturday will mark Ciota’s fifth game as the starting tailback. He hasn’t had less than 155 rushing yards or two touchdowns in any game as the first-team tailback.
There’s a secret — but not a well-kept one — to his success.
“The linemen are the reason I have all the yards I do,” Ciota said. “They are a key part, probably the biggest key.”
That group includes center Seth Griswell, a senior whom SJ-O staff members have tried to convince coach Dick Duval to play elsewhere.
“He may have the best hands on the team,” Duval said. “When we throw passes (in practice), he catches everything one-handed. We put him in the front row (for onside kicks).
“Marshall (Schacht, Spartans assistant) says he ought to be a tight end, but we don’t throw to the tight end enough to warrant him being there, plus he has done a great job at center.”
Ciota runs behind the blocks of Griswell, guards Nolan Woller and Janssen Sage and tackles Dylan Koss and Ryan Koss. Fullback Connor Janes and tight end Clayton Slifer are also prominent blockers.
Duval said Ciota’s progress has been rapid.
“He has shown more durability than I thought he could show,” Duval said. “We knew we had to be somewhat careful with him. Each game as we go on, he is able to do more.”
When two-way player Hedrick was healthy, the coach rested him on offense. The decision was easy because Ciota was projected as a future impact back.
“We thought next year would be his year, with him and Ty (Brown) sharing carries,” Duval said.
Though Ciota had some varsity carries early in the season, most were in late-game situations.
“He didn’t go in until Hedrick looked like he was getting tired, but Austin was so strong-willed, he refused to come out,” Duval said. “In practice, we split time. They would run every two plays to make sure everyone was up on what we were doing.”
When Ciota — who also handles all of the Spartans’ place-kicking duties — needs a breather, Duval makes a substitution on defense. With Brown injured, the next choice at tailback is often to shift Janes from fullback.
“I’ve come a long ways,” Ciota said. “I wasn’t as mentally tough. I’ve had to buckle down and help the team any way I can.”
Tenth-ranked SJ-O (10-2) is seeking its fifth championship-game berth under Duval. Fifth-ranked Greenville (12-0) is attempting to reach a title game for the first time — in any sport, boys or girls — in school history.
Four previous times, St. Joseph-Ogden’s football program has advanced to a state semifinal game. On each occasion, a team coached by Dick Duval moved on to play for a state championship. A look at the school’s other state semifinal games:
SJ-O 28, Dupo 27
Class 2A, 1989
Shawn Skinner (current assistant) forced a fumble that Jeff Fee recovered with 3:31 left. Fee threw three touchdowns to John Woodard.
SJ-O 39, Stillman Valley 14
Class 2A, 1997
The Spartans scored 39 consecutive points after trailing 8-0. Ryan Jones rushed for team-high 149 yards and Michael Benso passed for 134 yards and three touchdowns.
SJ-O 34, Montini 13
Class 3A, 1999
Spartans came out on top in a game that saw each school put up 318 yards of offense. Brian Royse rushed for 199 yards and scored three touchdowns, one on a pass from Matt McKinney.
SJ-O 22, Anna-Jonesboro 21
Class 3A, 2006
Spartans won with a late-game Nick Krisman interception sealing the win. Mark Gones rushed for team-high 160 yards. A Krisman field goal created a 15-15 tie.