WHEELING, W.Va. — Walking the halls this week at Wheeling Central Catholic High School are dozens of young men with bleach blonde hair.
Those young men are players of the Maroon Knights football team, carrying on a tradition that started long before them of having the hair-style for a state championship game. While it might not seem like much to the outside world, it means a lot to the players because it is part of the tradition.
Tradition is what drives this football program, tradition is what fuels CCHS in all sports to ride off into the sunset with rings on numerous occasions in a calendar year, and tradition is what has gotten the football team back to Wheeling Island Stadium for the Super Six.
“It is something the kids took as a sign of accomplishment,” Mike Young, Wheeling Central Catholic football coach, said of the bleaching of hair. “They do it carrying on the tradition and they do it with pride.
“The biggest thing with our tradition is expectations. We tell our kids to act like you’ve been there. Show class, show good character because sometimes you get caught in the heat of the battle or thrill of victory and sometimes it can go in the wrong direction. We try to keep it as much moving forward as possible.”
The #1 Maroon Knights (12-1) kick off against # 6 Williamstown (11-2) on Saturday night at 7 p.m. in Wheeling for a Class A title. The two teams met in Week 1 of the regular season, with the Maroon Knights coming out on top 33-0.
Wheeling Central is vying for its 11th state championship in football, 10th since 2000. The school has won a total of 85 state championships across all sports.
“We are very fortunate,” Donnie Murray, the high school’s athletic director and a graduate of CCHS, said. “Where Central saw a lot of success in the early to mid-90s, and the even the early 2000s with their programs, we are getting the second generation of kids. When you look at some of the names on the rosters, you have legacy athletes.
“We are more successful at making better men and women than athletes. We have been very blessed to have a lot of great student-athletes here.”
Up and down the football roster are last names that have already been sketched into Wheeling Central athletics lore. Young said that is what motivates the kids, as they want their own turn of success.
“Everybody has a hold of that rope and they don’t want to let go,” he said. “That rope keeps us together, that rope maintains the identity of the past. We want it to continue to the future.”
A large part of Wheeling Central’s football past was built by legendary coach Jim Thomas. He was the head football coach in 1979 for the school’s first state championship and for the titles in 2000, 2002, and 2004. Thomas died unexpectedly in the Spring of 2005.
Young worked as an assistant to Thomas on the three state championship teams in the early 2000s and took over as head coach after his passing.
“Coach Thomas was as fiery of a coach that you would ever want to be around,” Young said. “He had a great football mind. He was very dedicated to Central and set a great tone for so many others to follow. I followed a legend.
“I have the utmost respect for Coach Thomas. He is a credit to the program and truly missed.”
Young succeeded Thomas in 2005 and didn’t skip a beat, as the Maroon Knights piled up state championship trophies in ’05, ’06, ’07, ’10, ’11, and ’17. Young graduated from CCHS in 1967 and has been coaching for 48 years. Winning on Saturday would only add to his already legendary resume.
“Sometimes we get challenged to maintain enthusiasm and character because the excitement is there and sometimes we get sidetracked as to what were all the commitments made to get here. What got us to this point were all the trials and tribulations to climb this mountain. It was respect for your opponents, it was respect for your game.
“I was raised by a mother and father that taught me about respect, care, and love for my siblings. I have carried that same life lesson to the game.”
The #1 Maroon Knights have dismantled every opponent in the playoffs to get to this point. CCHS opened with a 61-30 victory over #16 Tyler Consolidated, followed by a 40-19 quarterfinal win against #9 Magnolia, and a trashing of #4 Doddridge County 47-7 in the semifinal.
Wheeling Central avenged its only loss of the regular season against Magnolia in that quarterfinal matchup.
“To be a Maroon Knight to me means giving everything that you have for everything that you want for everybody else,” Murray said. “There is a lot of pride that comes with being a Maroon Knight. To me, it’s about sacrifice.
“Saturday night is when it is all worth it when you are on the sidelines watching your kids do what they do best. Monday through Friday in the classroom and then on the field. That is the big payoff, that is the reward.”
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