WHEELING, W.Va. – After continued of overall athletic success, Wheeling Park finally has a football state championship.
The Patriots (12-1-1) on Saturday afternoon defeated defending state champion Capital (10-3) 23-15 in front of a packed house at Wheeling Island Stadium.
“There are a bunch of people who I’ve coached with and played with – and they’ve wanted this thing just as bad as any kid,” said Wheeling Park coach Chris Daugherty. “Today was for all of them too, they were a small piece in this, creating the program and we just kept building on it. We’re here right now and it feels good.”
The Wheeling Park defense held Capital’s dynamic quarterback, and WVU commit, Tyrhee Pratt to just 11 of 26 passing for 99 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions – Pratt also managed just 90 yards rushing and another touchdown on 24 carries.
All three interceptions came from Wheeling Park senior defensive back Tre Saunders, including the game-clinching pick as time expired. The Cougars had been trying to claw their way back into the game after falling behind 23-7 early in the third quarter.
Down 23-13 and under two minutes to go, Capital blocked a Wheeling Park punt, which was then batted out of the back of the end-zone for a safety to close the Cougars’ deficit to 23-15 and just 1:15 left.
On Capital’s next possession, it was Wheeling Park’s defense that stepped up again, keeping Pratt in check and limiting the Cougars to the Park 45 yard line. That’s when Pratt’s final heave towards the end-zone wound up in the hands of Saunders, the clock expired and the Patriots’ title celebration ensued.
“Tre has been picked on all season because of his height, but he came to play today,” said Wheeling Park senior Elijah Bell. “He had three interceptions when we needed them. Our front line and our backers deserve credit too – they don’t get enough credit like they should.”
It was Bell who collected the game’s first touchdown at the 7:34 mark of the first quarter, bringing in a 35-yard bullet-pass with his fingertips from sophomore quarterback Cross Wilkinson.
“We ran the same play on the play before,” Bell said. “They came out and pressed me, Coach gave Cross the fade signal and he put the ball where it needed to be. Cross allowed us to be 50-50 (pass run) on the year – we could do whatever we wanted, knowing we had him at quarterback. For him to be back for two more years is something special for Wheeling Park.”
Bell totaled four catches on the day for 72 yards and a touchdown. Wilkinson completed 8 of 12 passes for 107 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Wheeling Park was in the title game for the first time since 1991 – a loss to Capital in Charleston.
“This is great to make history for the city and for the school,” Wilkinson said. “I know people on the 1991 team and we wanted to go out and win one for them. This is great.”
Wilkinson’s other touchdown came on a 19 yard touch-pass to James Coles with 54 seconds left in the second quarter. Wheeling Park also had a 28 yard field goal from Chase Gheen in that first half.
Capital trailed 17-7 at the break, scoring a first half touchdown on a 10 yard pass from Pratt to Silas Nazario. Nazario, who has been hampered in the postseason with a high ankle sprain, went out of the game in the second half with the same injury. Freshman Kalai Clark finished with 75 yards rushing on 13 carries in Nazario’s absence.
Wheeling Park senior Savion Johnson led the Patriots on the ground, finishing with 114 yards on 23 carries. He, too, played through a nagging shoulder injury throughout the game.
“This is the best feeling in the world,” Johnson said. “The crowd was great, it was packed and the craziest thing I’ve experienced on the field. This was more to us than just winning the first title – we’ve battled through so much as a team. We’re brothers.”
Wheeling Park collected a blocked punt of its own during Capital’s opening drive of the third quarter. That set the Patriots up for an eventual two-yard touchdown run from Chase Adams.
Capital added an eight-yard score from Pratt with 57 seconds left in the third quarter to close the Park lead to 23-13, setting up the late-game dramatics that would come in the final stanza.
“Wheeling Park is really good,” said Capital coach Jon Carpenter. “They’re big and they made plays. That’s why they’re out there celebrating. It just wasn’t our day. We had a hard time of matching their enthusiasm.”
Capital’s title game loss, meanwhile, is the final piece to what has been a fantastic run for Pratt and his senior class teammates.
“That’s what is hard,” Carpenter said. “I’ve cried six or seven times this week. We’ve taken the kids to elementary schools and all of that. Since I’ve been here, we’ve always tried to motivate out of love and not fear. The bad part about that is that it’s hard to see them go – it wouldn’t matter if we were 13-0 or 0-10.”
For Park and Johnson, it’s finally redemption after missing out so many years before. Johnson, specifically, has been on a mission to get his team a state title after he missed all of last year with a knee injury.
“This is what I’ve been thinking about forever, not just last year,” Johnson said. “For my teammates, some of us might not ever play again and we’ll all never play together again. This was the last game and we gave everything that we had for each other.”