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From no one to No. 1

Nov. 13, 2013 @ 12:48 AM

HUNTINGTON -- As the seconds rolled off of last week's 14-6 win over Winfield, Huntington High football coach Billy Seals took his headset off, hugged a few players and spoke to his team about mental toughness.

The win was certainly not the prettiest game of the season, but the Highlanders found a way to gut it out to achieve the team's first 10-0 regular season in the new consolidated school's history.

There was almost a certain symmetry in the way that the win occurred -- Huntington High having to show mental toughness to overcome adversity, physical toughness to churn out drives and maturity to not let the weight of the moment break them.

It was a stark contrast to when Seals first arrived in Huntington five years ago to coach the Highlanders.

"We've come a long way, but at the same time, we still have a long way to go," Seals said. "We're glad we were 10-0, but now, we're all 0-0 and we're eager to get into the playoffs and see what we can do."

Huntington High takes the No. 1 seed overall into the Class AAA playoffs where they start with a first-round matchup with No. 16 Lewis County at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday at Bob Sang Stadium.

To know where the Highlanders are, one must first understand where the Huntington High program had been.

When Seals arrived to coach Huntington High for the 2009 season, the Highlanders were coming off of back-to-back 1-9 seasons.

Seals' first season was no picnic, either, with the Highlanders going winless at 0-10.

That meant from 2007-2009, Huntington High's record stood at 2-28.

Success was down, numbers of players were down and interest in the team was non-existent.

It seemed like a brutal situation for the head coach who had made the journey from Morristown, Tenn.

Changing the dynamic

The biggest change needed at Huntington High was attitude.

The knock on Huntington High was that the players were soft mentally and physically and Seals knew that to win with the Highlanders, that had to change.

Seals served as the defensive coordinator for the Highlanders and he called his best friend -- Brandon Cassell -- to see of Cassell's interest in coaching the offense.

Doing so would mean a changing of the guard for the Highlanders, who would switch from a wide-open, Spread attack to a Flex offense built on power running and ball control.

In its fourth season, Cassell's offense is a well-tuned machine that churns out yardage with Paden Christian, a strong-nosed fullback, and dynamic running backs Nick Tubbs and Charles Crawford. Quarterback Clark Wilson is also an exceptional athlete that is key to the offense.

"Brandon has done a great job with those guys, getting them to buy in to being physical and aggressive at the point of attack," Seals said. "We have done a great job of executing -- especially in timely situations -- and that's because the guys believe in what they're doing. They've adopted the mentality we want on both sides of the ball of being a physical team."

When Cassell came to the staff in 2010, he knew nothing about Huntington, W.Va., the state of the Huntington High program or the undertaking that he was going to take on.

All he knew was that his best friend needed his help, so he packed up everything from Morristown, Tenn., and came to coach the Highlanders.

At the time, Huntington High was full of skill players, but the weight program and interest in the football program were still down, so there was much resistance met by Seals and Cassell upon implementation of the new offense -- especially after the team started 0-3 in the first three games of 2010.

However, in game four of that year, those involved in the program started to see a glimpse of the future -- a future that is evident with the Highlanders' 10-0 season in 2013.

The first building block

On Sept. 24, 2010, the Highlanders found themselves in a situation that they had seen in 31 of their previous 33 contests, dating back to the start of the 2007 year.

They were losing and things looked bleak.

Riverside led Huntington High 13-0 in the third quarter and it appeared that there wasn't much going right for the Highlanders. The defense was playing well, but the offense hadn't found a way to muster much offense.

That's when the tides of the Huntington High program turned, and they've not looked back since.

Quarterback Tyler Hutchison had gotten the Highlanders on the board in the third quarter with a touchdown run in the third quarter, and the senior had driven the Highlanders down to the Riverside 4-yard line to set up a fourth-and-goal scenario.

Hutchison then hit Jarod Martin with a 4-yard touchdown pass before the extra point sent the game to overtime. Riverside scored first to go ahead 20-13, but the Highlanders answered with an 8-yard TD pass from Hutchison to Devante Marable.

As the Highlanders set up for the extra point, Riverside coach Ralph Hensley called timeout and Seals asked veteran coach Toby Holbrook his opinion on the headset.

Holbrook told Seals to go for it, and Elijah King took a run around the right side and into the end zone for the two-point conversion and a 21-20 win.

The celebration that night in Quincy, W.Va., looked more like a state championship celebration, but it was only one win.

No one knew at the time exactly how big that win would be, however.

The Highlanders' ascent

That win at Riverside set off a span in which the Highlanders won four of six games before falling just short of .500 after a loss to Capital in the season-finale.

Each year since, the Highlanders have steadily improved, meeting goals that have been set before the season began.

In 2011, the team went 8-4 before falling in the second round of the playoffs at Martinsburg.

In 2012, Huntington High went 8-2 in the regular season and earned two home playoff games -- the second of which was a season-ending loss to Morgantown. Still, the goal to host two playoff games had been reached.

Fast forward to 2013, and the Highlanders set much more lofty goals -- an undefeated regular season and a berth in the state championship in Wheeling.

"Each year, we've set goals, we've met those goals," Seals said prior to the season. "Our goals grew this year and we are hoping to reach them. We know it won't be easy, but nothing worth having ever is."

One of those goals have been reached while the process of reaching another gets started at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon when the No. 1 Highlanders host No. 16 Lewis County.

Behind-the-scenes

Taking a team from winless to undefeated is enough of a task for a coach, but the inter-workings of a football team in the situation of Huntington High's is impressive.

In many states, high schools are separated by the socioeconomic areas contained within a certain city. For example, cities like Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville have high schools in the inner-city, which features the more impoverished areas, and high schools in the suburbs where the more affluent families live.

There is not much intertwining between those in different socioeconomic groups when it comes to schools.

The city of Huntington is not that way, creating a unique situation for Seals and his staff.

It isn't something that is often talked about, but it is an aspect that has also been imperative to Seals' ability to build a program.

In looking at Huntington High's roster, you will notice two dynamics of people.

Seals has players on his team whose families are among the most respected and powerful within Huntington.

And on that same team, he has players who, aside from football, have nothing. Seals has even said there a few who often don't know where they will lay their head at night or whose home they will go to after football practice.

The backgrounds of some of the players on the team couldn't be much more different, but Seals and his staff have found a common ground to bring the two socioeconomic groups together -- the love of winning.

Seals and his staff have gotten the kids to buy in to winning as a team instead of individualism and, in turn, the Highlanders have built a family-like atmosphere that many would have never thought possible.

"When you can get kid to trust his teammate, regardless of their background or situation, that's how you know you are starting to build a program," Seals said during the team's bye week this season. "Those guys aren't all best friends, they don't always hang out together, but on that field, they'll do anything for each other to make sure everyone wins.

"That type of sacrifice is what makes a team special."

The power of one

Huntington High's No. 1 ranking has been built upon that unselfishness that Seals spoke of and the success of one of the state's top defenses.

The Highlanders have been ranked atop the state all season in points allowed in Class AAA. Huntington High allowed 9.3 points per game in the regular season.

The defensive success combined with the playmaking ability of the offense not only turned Huntington High into a program that sits at No. 1, it did something even bigger in Huntington.

It turned the team into the community's team for possibly the first time since the consolidation of Huntington High and Huntington East High School.

Even in the last two playoff seasons, crowds had been sporadic, but they have been much more steady this season.

It is an aspect of the success that Seals said is integral to keep his team building into the future, which starts with Saturday's playoff game.

"We're definitely proud of our kids and proud to be part of this community," Seals said. "I hope the community comes out and supports these guys throughout the playoffs. They deserve it. Our crowds have been really good and it makes a huge difference -- especially in playoffs where everyone you play is going to be good."

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