By: Michael Minnich
Mineral Daily News Tribune
For the first time in school history, the East Hardy Cougars (12-1) will play for a state football championship on Saturday at 7 p.m., at Wheeling Island Stadium.
It’ll be No. 1 vs. No. 2, as undefeated Magnolia (13-0) also held serve on its half of the bracket.
“This is where I hoped to be,” East Hardy coach Chad Williams told MetroNews at the state playoff meetings in Parkersburg on Sunday. “I said at the start of the year that I thought this was the best team that we’ve ever had.”
It’s a magical season that came about because EH’s young talent blossomed fully as seniors.
“We were very fortunate the last two years to make the playoffs and to make the quarterfinals and do what we did, because the juniors and seniors that are out there now, a lot of them were starting as freshmen and sophomores,” said Williams.
“I thought that if we were ever going to do it, that this would be the year,” said Williams. “Now that we’re here, it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
East Hardy advanced to the championship game with a 36-19 win over St. Marys on Saturday, with Corey McDonald throwing for 390 yards and five touchdowns.
Brett Tharp set a Class A semifinal record with 239 receiving yards, hauling in 10 balls, two for touchdowns, while Bryce Strawderman had four receptions for 103 yards and two scores.
“To get the spread to pop, we need Corey McDonald. And Corey came through big-time [against St. Marys] with 390 passing yards. And he’s got so much responsibility in what we do offensively that we need him to have a big night. And have Bryce Strawderman, Brett Tharp, those guys are getting to be pretty well-known names. Both of them passed 1,000 receiving yards for the season,” said Williams. “But the biggest thing has got to be that team effort defensively.”
East Hardy threw the ball 40 times and ran it just 13 on that particular night, but Williams characterizes his team as opportunists.
“A team that’s going to take whatever the defense gives them,” said Williams. “Two weeks ago, Jesse Miller runs for over 100 yards. [Saturday night], he gets one carry, and we put the ball in the air 40 times.”
“We’re going to spread you and see what you’re going to give us, and try and take that.”
And although McDonald has chucked the ball for 2,916 yards and 36 touchdowns, the Cougars haven’t been too shabby on the ground either, finding the end zone 30 times on running plays.
McDonald is their leading rusher as well, toting 182 times for 1,150 yards and 16 scores.
Then, it’s Phillip Mullin (102-582-8) and Miller (70-443-4).
“It really doesn’t matter to me,” said Williams. “I’d rather just run the ball, if we can. I think everybody would. But you get into something like [the St. Marys game] where we’re seeing loaded boxes and St. Marys was clearly gearing up to stop the run…it’s nice to be able to do both things, and that’s the whole point of running the spread offense.”
On the other side of the ball, the Cougars have been solid, allowing over 20 points just twice.
“Defensively, this is the best group that we’ve had. We’ve got a really good crew of linebackers. I think we’ve got six guys that are in their third year starting for us. We’re able to do a lot more things in mixing up coverages, mixing up our fronts that we’ve never been able to do in the past,” said Williams. “We were already in mid-season form on August 1, so we had a lot to build on going from there.”
It’s not surprising that, with Magnolia and East Hardy the top two seeds, the Cougars have been eyeing this exact showdown on Wheeling Island.
“Throughout the regular season, you kind of look and start sizing people up, and we kind of knew if that if we made it to this point, Magnolia would be the likely team on the other end,” said Williams. “I’ve seen Magnolia a couple of times, watching them play St. Marys and Wheeling Central, but I’ve watched it from the other perspective.
“From everything that I can tell, they are an incredibly physical bunch,” he continued. “They look to be pretty fast to me. I remember that big old number 83 [Kyle Ritz] from when we played out there in the quarterfinals three years ago. And he was a monster then. So I can imagine what we’re in for going against him as a senior now.”
Magnolia is here after eliminating East Hardy’s county rival, Moorefield, in the semifinals last week, 13-7.
Quarterback Nick Priem’s two short-yardage touchdowns, one in each of the first two quarters, proved to be the difference.
The Blue Eagles won despite being out-gained 242-201 by the Yellow Jackets, but did force three turnovers and were mistake-free in their own right on offense.
Tyler Anderson rushed 16 times for 164 yards to set the table for Priem’s plunges.
Magnolia finished as state champion out of Class AA in 2010, defeating Ravenswood, 28-13, and in AA in 1964, beating Mount Hope, 15-7, and finished second in AA in 2008, 1993, 1992, 1981, and 1972.
Williams is a little concerned about the hype surrounding his team.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things that I’m worried about. Just so many people that are acting like the job’s already done. And it’s not the kids. The community has every right to be excited. It took me about two hours to get out of there [on Saturday],” said Williams. “There was so much excitement. I’ve never seen that many people in our stadium. When it ended, they stuck around for at least an hour.”
“But the kids are focused on a mission. They know what we’re here for. And they know that Magnolia is going to present a tougher test than anything we’ve seen all year.”
And his own emotions?
“Oh boy. I can’t imagine it. I’m a pretty high-strung guy anyway, and I’m not planning on getting much sleep this week,” said Williams. “I’m going to be nervous. I’ll probably throw up before the game. I have before the last two games.”