By Wes McKinney for WVMetroNews.com
Class AAA No. 4 Spring Valley (10-2) at Class AAA No. 1 Huntington (12-0)
Both Spring Valley and Huntington had to battle adverse weather conditions Saturday to move on to the Class AAA semifinals.
Spring Valley posted its second consecutive playoff shutout with a blanking of Cabell Midland, 15-0. Meanwhile, Huntington stacked up Hurricane at the goal line on a potential game-winning two-point conversion with less than a minute left to hang on, 28-27.
“Offensively, I felt like we played pretty well,” Huntington head coach Billy Seals said. “Defensively, we had some issues stopping Hurricane. They can really spread the ball around. But we got a win and Jadon Hayes made a big play on the two-point conversion to help us secure the victory.”
Hayes powered the offensive attack for the Highlanders by scoring all four touchdowns and rushing for nearly 300 yards.
Spring Valley leaned on Owen Chafin for a second straight week as he went over 100 yards on the ground, but it was Isaac Howard that scored both touchdowns for the Timberwolves.
“It was a different environment, being a day game and a rivalry,” Spring Valley head coach Brad Dingess said of the matchup with Cabell Midland. “They are a really good football team. We’re excited to get to practice another week.”
And this is a special week to practice, and both teams in the southwest corner of the state have nearly become mainstays for putting on the pads during Thanksgiving.
After years of seeing its season end early in the playoffs, Spring Valley makes its second consecutive semifinal appearance while Huntington will be playing its third semifinal game in the last five years.
“Most of our kids experienced what it was like last year—we’re going to practice in the evening at the start of the week,” Dingess said.
“We’re also practicing Thanksgiving morning. We’re going to get together as a team with their families and have a meal Wednesday night. Not very many teams can say they get to practice on Thanksgiving. That’s one of the great things about high school football—practicing on Thanksgiving.”
Huntington won the first matchup this season between the two teams as it took advantage of some good field position, finding the end zone two times in the second half in a 14-0 victory.
Chris Rogers and Hayes were responsible for the scores in the contest.
“It was an old-fashioned game that we were on the right side of,” Seals said.
“Spring Valley is going to do what Spring Valley has always done. But, they have changed a little bit from what they were doing early in the year. They are back to Spring Valley football—two tight ends, double wings and trying to cram it down your throat.
“They’ll still throw it when they get a chance,” Seals continued. “Derek Johnson is a very elusive quarterback. I know Spring Valley has improved a lot since the first time we played this season.”
While the win over Spring Valley capped an impressive two-week stretch for the Highlanders as they beat Belfry, Kentucky before downing the Timberwolves, Spring Valley was still finding itself in the season opener against Huntington.
“We were still looking for our identity,” Dingess said.
“We knew we had some good players coming back, but we didn’t know how the chips were going to fall with them. We felt like Huntington was the best team on our schedule coming into the season.
“That’s a tough way to start the season,” Dingess continued. “I’m anxious to see what happens. I feel like we’ve gotten better as a team and we’ve grown—we’re gelling. I’m excited to see what we look like going against Huntington again.”
While the skill-position players dominate most of the headlines for both teams, the most important battles will be up front with Ohio State commit Doug Nestor anchoring Spring Valley’s line and highly-sought after Huntington lineman Darnell Wright leading the Highlanders’ charge.
“We can’t allow them to be in second-and-five,” Seals said. “Those are the things we have to do well on defense. On the offensive line, we have continue to get a push each play. We’re not going to get a 40-yard run each time we snap the ball.
“Jadon (Hayes) has done a nice job of being patient and letting things develop around him,” he continued. “Our offensive line has done a nice job each week of the season, and they are continuing to get better. Whoever wins the line of scrimmage and the turnover battle will win the game.”
Regardless of the winner Friday night, the City of Huntington will be the real victor.
“It’s good for the city of Huntington,” Seals said.
“Anytime you can get two teams that are 15 miles apart of each other playing in the state semifinals, it’s a big deal. We take a lot of pride in that and the City of Huntington should be proud of both of these teams.”
And just how well is football thriving in the southwest region of the state?
“Last week in our bracket, it was four teams that are in the same section in baseball and basketball,” Dingess said. “It’s really good football in this area right now. Hopefully, there will be a lot of people at Huntington on Friday night. It should be a good atmosphere.”
Class AA No. 4 Fairmont Senior (11-1) at Class AA No. 1 Mingo Central (12-0)
Mingo Central will be making its third straight trip to the Class AA semifinals thanks in part of a third-quarter explosion against Liberty.
Up just 25-14 at halftime, Mingo Central outscored the Mountaineers 28-0 to take command of the game on its way to a 53-22 win over Liberty.
“We made some halftime adjustments and I liked how the kids responded and got excited,” Mingo Central head coach Joey Fields said. “It motivated them a little bit. Our guys did their jobs and had fun doing it. It was a team effort—it was fun to see.”
The Miners even found themselves trailing 7-0 nine minutes into the game after Liberty grinded out a scoring drive to open the game.
“That’s been a lot of people’s game plan going in—to keep our offense off the field,” Fields said.
“Liberty did a good job of that in the first quarter. The things Jeremy Dillon can do are special — it’s uncoachable things. He makes good things out of bad things. It’s hard to keep our offense from scoring. Our guys understand that they are running out of there with a lot of confidence thinking they can score every single possession.”
Dillon eclipsed the 60 touchdown mark on the season with his performance versus Liberty. The reigning Kennedy Award winner and MetroNews Player of the Year has 41 passing touchdowns and an additional 19 on the ground.
Standing in the way of another trip back to Wheeling Island Stadium is the team Mingo Central knocked off last year for the state title.
Some of the names are still the same for the Polar Bears like Dante Stills and Bryson Gilbert. One name that has changed is the starting quarterback from last year’s championship game — Jake Abbott to Connor Neal.
“You would think he’s a senior that’s been a four-year starter,” Fields said of Neal, who has thrown for over 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns.
“He hangs in the pocket, reads everything in front of him and checks down when he needs to on time. He has a lot of playmakers around him. They’ll be a tough team to handle.”
Neal has four receivers who have caught at least 25 passes this season led by Antonio Parsons with 31 receptions and nine touchdowns. And there’s also Gilbert who has rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 19 scores.
Last year is different because Mingo Central was accounting for Abbott every play.
“The whole game last season we never solo tackled Jake Abbott, but they are a different team,” Fields explained.
“That was a concern last year, now the concern this year is their playmakers are everywhere. They have five guys that can catch the ball and take it to the house anytime. They can put Gilbert at running back and become a running team. They are a lot of different than last year—same group of guys just a different scheme.”