By Eric Little – Seven Ranges Radio for WVMetroNews.com
The Mid-Ohio Valley has just three teams in the playoffs, but all three are worth your attention this postseason. One is arguably the most storied football program in the state. Another is the defending Class A champion. The third has multiple state championships and enters this tournament as one of the most dangerous 16 seeds the state has seen in years, regardless of class. Here’s this week’s slate:
Class AAA No. 10 John Marshall (7-3) at No. 7 Parkersburg (7-3) – Friday 7:30, Stadium Field in Parkersburg
You might not believe that Parkersburg High School hasn’t hosted a postseason football game since 2007, but Friday’s will be the first to hit Dudley Avenue in a decade. Much has changed since then. Once a perennial favorite in Class AAA, PHS never quite hit rock bottom over the last decade, but the Big Reds floundered while other teams asserted their dominance. Make no mistake, this lion is ready to roar once more.
Parkersburg enters the playoffs following a 27-24 come-from-behind win over crosstown rival Parkersburg South. Much like they did against Wheeling Park, the Big Reds rallied from a double-digit deficit – in this case, 12 points. They did it by literally running the ball down South’s throats.
Tyler Moler carried the rock 40 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Nearly half of those carries came in the fourth quarter alone. Kam Mace connected through the air with Brenton Strange on a couple touchdowns. But Parkersburg head coach Mike Byus said the difference came in the second half when the Big Reds found something that worked, and didn’t go away from it.
“We finally found a couple things that we could do without making negative plays.” Byus said of his team’s mid-third quarter discovery. “We ran three football plays, period, the rest of the game. One of the three we only ran twice. So, basically, it was two football plays the rest of the night.”
Parkersburg’s opponent this week, John Marshall, may have come in flying a little too high last week against their rival, Wheeling Park. A week after clinching a playoff berth, the Monarchs fell behind early against Park. A rally yielded a more respectable 42-28 final score, but John Marshall head coach Rick Goodrich hopes the lesson was learned by the time of the final gun.
“I think the loss brought us back down to reality in terms of finding out what we need to do to get better.” Goodrich said. “Park took it to us. They were the more physical team and dominated the line of scrimmage. I think they woke us up a little bit.”
Both teams have strong rushing attacks led by workhorse backs. In addition to Moler, the Big Reds have fullback Shane Miller. Parkersburg’s not afraid to run with or throw to Miller, but he may be somewhat limited this week after breaking his hand in the win over Parkersburg South. John Marshall’s Dereck Hess has had a big season as well, and after missing two early season games with an appendectomy, Nick Coulter is back to round out the 1-2 punch in the Monarch backfield.
“Hess is a difference maker; a home-run hitter. Coulter is going to wear you out between the tackles.” Goodrich said, sizing up his backfield threat. “It’s a different one-two combination.”
Both teams also know they’ll have their hands full now that they’ve reached the playoffs.
“My only hope was to play someone that’s not in our conference.” Byus said of the matchup. “That’s playoff football. You shouldn’t be seeing the same teams over and over.”
Goodrich has also noticed his opponent’s propensity for late-game dramatics, especially against common opponents Wheeling Park and Parkersburg South.
“I know they’re tough. They’re a storied program. We’re going to have our hands full.” Goodrich said. “They’re going to keep fighting. It’s going to be a four-quarter game. If we get the lead, they’re not going away.”
Byus hopes a packed house on Friday will provide the support that’s carried his team to the #7 seed.
“The fans have been so supportive this year. They came out and packed the house every Friday night. I’m so appreciative of them and the kids are too.” Byus said.
“The biggest thing I want people to understand is how proud I am of our kids and our coaching staff.” Byus continued. “It’s been a long season since June workouts, but right now that we’re getting into the playoffs, I think that’ll rejuvenate everyone a little bit.”
Class A No. 16 Williamstown (5-4) at Class A No. 1 East Hardy (10-0) – Friday 7:30, East Hardy High School in Baker
You could hardly blame the Williamstown Yellowjackets if they’ve been blasting Garth Brooks in the locker room this week. Terry Smith’s squad, in the eyes of many, showed up in boots and ruined the black-tie affair that is the Class A playoffs. (Ok, maybe it’s more like a tuxedo T-shirt, but go with me here, ok?)
East Hardy head coach Chad Williams is no fool, because when his unbeaten Cougars entered the postseason, the Yellowjackets aren’t exactly the last ones he thought he’d see there. But even though he considers Smith a friend, Williams knows the bottom of the Class A bracket is hardly considered low places – as long as the Yellowjackets are there.
“We know how good Williamstown is. They’re a heck of a lot better than their 5-4 record shows. They just play a tough schedule. That’s just the nature of the beast, I think in Class A more so than in any other level in West Virginia.” Williams offered. “There are so many teams out there making schedules just to get in, and then there are some of us that are going out and scheduling top teams. It makes things tough when the draws come out, but we’ll play who we have to play.”
The Yellowjackets routed Tolsia 42-0 to finish at 5-4 after an unexpected two-week layoff. The Parkersburg industrial fire forced cancellation of their annual meeting with Parkersburg Catholic, and with a bye week afterward, Williamstown was forced into a two-week late October hibernation. Smith credits his team leaders for making sure the team stayed on track.
“We practiced, because of course we didn’t get cancelled until the day of the game (against Parkersburg Catholic), so we had game practices. But the guys worked hard.” Smith said of his team’s effort. “You gotta thank the seniors for keeping us focused. That’s when they lead by example.”
Williamstown was 1-4 at the halfway point of the season, but rebounded to win when they needed to win after surviving a tough stretch of the schedule.
“The level of competition changed.” Smith said of the difference between the first half of Williamstown’s season and the second. “You’re not playing Wheeling Central or St. Marys, so that helps, but I’d like to say our blocking and tackling also got better.”
This week, Williamstown runs into a laser-focused East Hardy team that’s been denied a state title in each of the last two seasons after making it all the way to Wheeling Island. After a drubbing in 2015 at the hands of Magnolia, untimely turnovers allowed St. Marys to come away with a state championship against East Hardy last year. Williams says a third straight trip back to the Island is on his team’s mind.
“It’s pretty much all they’ve talked about since December. We’ve been excited to get the regular season over with so we could get to the playoffs.” Williams said. “We got our goal of having the home games throughout. I don’t know how much of a reward it is to be a one-seed and play Williamstown, because they might be the 16-seed, but I think everyone knows they might be one of the five or six best teams in the state.”
Williams had to replace a lot of key figures from last year’s state runners-up, but the cupboard was far from bare for the Cougars.
“Losing (last year’s quarterback) Corey McDonald, we knew we had a pretty good replacement in Clay Skovron.” Williams said of his signal-caller. “I said it all last year, if he wasn’t sitting behind Corey, he’d have quarterbacked just about anybody else in the state.”
Williamstown also replaced several key components from a team last year that ended their season with a loss AT East Hardy, including a quarterback. But he also knows this isn’t just a matter of seeking revenge for what happened a year ago. The Cougars are loaded, battle-tested and hungry this season.
“You’ve got to be careful what you wish for, but the draw is something you can’t control.” Smith said. “We’ll just do our part and go from there.”
Class A No. 12 Doddridge County (8-2) at Class A No. 5 St. Marys (8-1) – Saturday 1:30, Bill Hanlin Stadium in St. Marys
Defending Class A state champion St. Marys learned just how difficult a state title defense can be during the 2017 regular season. The Blue Devils have been battered and battle-tested.
Both running back Jaiden Smith and quarterback Eric Illar have missed time due to health issues. And South Harrison ended the Blue Devils’ 20-game win streak a few weeks ago. But St. Marys feels they’ve come through stronger than before and are ready to make another postseason run.
“To be honest with you, we just got a little healthier and that’s helped.” Mote said of his team’s improved efforts in back-to-back wins against Ravenswood and Tyler Consolidated to end the regular season. “One of the keys to postseason football is staying healthy. The ball has to bounce your way and stuff has to go right that you can’t really control. One of those is staying healthy. We may not have everyone back 100%, but at least we’ve got them back.”
One standout for the Blue Devils during the injury-filled middle of the season has been Matt Eichorn, who’s helped plug the gaps in St. Marys’ starting lineup.
“(Eichorn) has played receiver, he’s played running back, he’s played quarterback.” Mote said of his versatile threat. “He’s played every position on the offensive side of the ball, except lineman. He’s a very, very special kid. But we’ve got a lot of special kids because it’s not just a one-player team or a one-coach team.”
The opening round opponent for St. Marys is no stranger to the Blue Devils. Doddridge County was on the Blue Devils regular-season schedule until just a couple years ago. Bobby Burnside’s group rallied from an 0-2 start to their year to reel off eight straight wins and earn a #12 seed in the playoffs. They’ve been led by a strong rushing attack, led by Hunter America and Curtis James, as part of a well-rounded offense.
“Everyone knows we believe in running the football, as a lot of programs do, but when you go against stouter defenses and better teams, they commit to stopping that, so you have to be able to do something else.” Burnside said. “We’ve been able to do that this year because of Tanner Lett and the passing game.”
After two bumpy games at the start of the year that included five interceptions, Lett’s thrown 13 touchdown passes and has only been intercepted once, according to Burnside.
But Doddridge County’s defense has grabbed just as much attention. In their current eight-game winning streak, the Bulldogs have surrendered just 22 total points, with four shutouts. No one has scored more than one touchdown in a game against Doddridge County since Tyler Consolidated on September 1st.
“That’s been an area of strength for us.” Burnside said of his defense. “Our defensive coordinator and our young men have just been working to improve all year. That, and decreasing our turnovers as the season’s progressed, has meant a lot.”
Borrowing from another team clad in green and gold, Burnside hoped to “wake up the echoes” with a time and date selection out of the annals of Bulldog football history. Two of Doddridge County’s biggest playoff football wins came on Saturday afternoon.
One was a 1999 win over Cameron, when a 6-4 Bulldog squad earned the No. 16 seed and upset unbeaten Cameron in the first round. The other was in 1978 when the Bulldogs upset a Pineville team led by Curt Warner to advance to the state title game. Burnside knows he’ll need more than a few lucky charms to get the win Saturday.
“They’ve got explosive weapons. They’re going to be well-coached.” Burnside said of his opponent. “What we’ve got to do is play as hard as we can every snap.”
Mote knows his defensive staff will have their hands full against the Bulldogs’ running game on Saturday.
“If you make it to the playoffs, you’ve had to have faced some good backs and I feel like that’s something we’ve done.” Mote said of the challenges of facing Doddridge’s backfield. “You just try to scheme against them.”
This game can be heard locally on Lite Rock 93R (93.9 FM) and online at www.literock93r.com.