— By Eric Little – Seven Ranges Radio for WVMetroNews.com
State championships mean something at any level, but when small communities are fighting for titles, there’s a sense of civic pride on the line as well.
Pleasants County is one of the state’s smallest, by area, and one of the least populated. Even in a state of West Virginia’s size, it can be hard for a small community to find a claim to fame or a sense of pride. There’s a very real desire in a community like St. Marys to be the best or produce the best at something.
Over the years, Pleasants County has been proud of those who’ve gone on to do great things. Go to Marshall University and you’ll find the John Deaver Drinko Library, named after a St. Marys native.
The Sister Sledge hit, “We Are Family” became the rallying cry for the 1979 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, in part because St. Marys native Joe Safety – working for the Pirates in public relations – helped spread the word about the song’s status as the team’s unofficial theme song. Safety later went on to hold the top PR job with the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers.
In recent years, Pleasants County has produced nationally-touring musicians, a White House intern, a missionary in Rwanda, a current all-Big 12 Conference cross country runner at WVU, a successful Hollywood writer/producer, hundreds of servicemen and women in all branches of the armed forces and scores of others who’ve left the area to pursue numerous endeavors.
Most importantly, the county has produced hard-working Moms and Dads that have worked to instill small-town values in generations of children. Pleasants County is a community that extends far beyond boundaries on a map, or even state borders.
For the third time in the last four years, St. Marys will play for a state football championship – this time, the opponent is longtime Class A powerhouse Wheeling Central. The town will likely once again send hundreds, if not thousands, to Wheeling Island. But many more will be present in spirit, watching from afar with community pride.
Class A No. 5 St. Marys (11-1) vs. No. 10 Wheeling Central (9-4) – Saturday 7:00, Wheeling Island Stadium
Every successful Class A program, at least in recent years, owes at least a portion of its success to Wheeling Central. That includes schools like Williamstown, East Hardy, Wahama and St. Marys, the latter of which will play for a state championship for just the third time in the more than 100 years of the school’s history.
Mike Young’s program set the template for West Virginia small schools to follow and has long been the measuring stick statewide. The recipe for success isn’t a complicated one to understand, but requires full commitment from all parties involved.
“If you can get your kids, your administration, your parents, your boosters and your alumni to buy into what you’re selling, then you’ve got a program that has everybody on the same page and working toward the same cause,” Young said of his program, and for that matter, the St. Marys program.
St. Marys head coach Jodi Mote knows Young speaks from years of knowledge.
“I looked at their experience in the Super Six. I think they’ve got nine or ten championship appearances and they’ve won five titles. That says a lot. We won our first one last year and now this is our third time here,” Mote said. “The tradition and history that Coach Young and his staff and team and program has, that’s what you always try to get your program to be. No doubt, it’ll be a monumental task.”
There were many on the Wheeling Central side as recently as mid-October that viewed a trip to the state championship game as the real monumental task. The Maroon Knights were 3-4, and none of their three wins were very convincing.
Because of stiff competition, Wheeling Central didn’t win a game by more than five points until October 21. But Young has previously led teams to state championships with double-digit seeds. The results might not have been there early on this year for Wheeling Central, but Young sold the importance of persistence.
“When you look at the schedule we played, it was very demanding. Challenging, in many ways,” Young said. “But we knew if we could get enough wins to get in, we could make some noise. There were doubters, at times, but we believed we still could do it and the kids believed in me.”
Young took advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday to provide his current roster with a reminder of what they were fighting for and why it was still possible.
“At our Thanksgiving morning practice, we had a few guys come back and talk to the team and say, ‘Hey, we were 6-4 too, but here’s the state championship ring I wear today.’ It’s things like that that are proof of what you’re doing,” Young said.
Between the two teams, St. Marys had the strongest test in the semifinals – making the trek to Baker, West Virginia to pull off the 28-21 upset of East Hardy, the No. 1 seed and the two-time defending state runners-up.
The Blue Devils turned East Hardy’s mistakes into points. St. Marys converted a blocked punt into a drive that culminated in one of Jaiden Smith’s three touchdown runs. Matt Eichorn came away with two interceptions to help St. Marys overcome two of their own turnovers. The Blue Devils won by making sure East Hardy’s mistakes were more lethal.
“The team that makes the more critical mistakes usually doesn’t come out on top. We were able to overcome our mistakes,” Mote said. “Our kids showed a lot of resiliency and character. But that’s in the past. Our focus now is on Wheeling Central.”
That’s a focus, for St. Marys, that starts with the running game – led by Smith, Eichorn and Dylan Gray.
“Jaiden, Dylan and Eichorn – those are three runners we’re definitely going to count on. When (quarterback Eric) Illar’s able to throw the football, hopefully we’ll be able to execute that also. But it all starts up front with our line,” Mote said.
Each St. Marys back mentioned above brings a unique skill set to the table.
“Jaiden is an explosive downhill runner. Dylan is a great blocker. And then, Eichorn is a utility player. He’s had to step in at quarterback, he’s had to step in at tailback, he’s had to step in at wingback,” Mote said. “(Eichorn) is a true utility guy and also helps us with our counters and reverses.”
Those backs will have their hands full with a Wheeling Central defense that made mincemeat of Summers County in the semifinals. The Maroon Knights jumped out to a 42-0 halftime lead – thanks, in part, to a pair of “scoop and score” fumble recovery touchdowns – on the way to a 42-12 win. On a young team, the maturation of Wheeling Central’s defense has been one of their biggest keys to success.
“We’re playing with a lot more intensity, a lot more physicality and a lot more confidence,” Young said of his defense. “That allows you to read, react and run to the ball, rather than stop, hesitate and think. You don’t have time on the field to do that.”
Central graduated 14 seniors last year, with many of them playing key roles on both sides of the ball. Into that void stepped sophomore quarterback Curtis McGhee.
“Everything revolves around your quarterback. On a lot of teams, as he goes, you go. We were very fortunate that Curtis McGhee stepped up and became that leader that we needed him to be,” Young said. “The guys saw that, felt that, sensed that and played that.”
Young says his team will not be intimated by a matchup with the defending state champions.
“It’s another game for us. We look at what we are and where we are. Whether it’s a defending state champion or not doesn’t come into play for us. It’s not a factor,” Young said.
As for St. Marys, Mote realizes he’s on the ride of a lifetime, and he hopes those around the program understand the same thing.
“It’s probably a ride I need to enjoy more, to be honest with you. I just try to focus on getting the job done. And I’m sure I’ll look back on it and kick myself for not enjoying it as much as I should have,” Mote said, in regards to a third trip to the Super Six in four years. “It’s just remarkable to work with the staff that we have. They’re unbelievable. And then your kids have to truly buy into what you’re trying to do, and ours have done that.”
Greatness isn’t always measured in championships, especially in a community where unsung heroes toil daily and often don’t see the fruits of their labor. Many great figures, in sports and life, have given their best and fallen short.
Both coaches and programs in this year’s Class A title game have felt highs and lows. Both have reached the top of the mountain. As far as Mote’s concerned, he’s glad to have another crack at a title.
“There’s some great, great coaches and great, great kids that never make it to the Super Six,” Mote said. “You can’t ever take it for granted.”
This game will be available on a statewide network of MetroNews Radio affiliates. Locally, that includes Lite Rock 93R (93.9 FM) and www.literock93r.com. A live, full HD video broadcast can also be watched on the MetroNews Channel of WVMetroNews.com.
The game will also be rebroadcast on Sunday, December 10 at 1 p.m. on AT&T SportsNet.