Highlanders head to Wheeling
WHEELING -- Football history will be made Saturday when No. 1 Huntington High takes on No. 2 Martinsburg in the Class AAA state championship game at noon at Wheeling Island Stadium.
A Huntington High victory would be the school's first football state title since consolidation in 1996.
If the Bulldogs win, it will be a record fourth consecutive state crown. They became the first Class AAA school to win three straight championships since Charleston High (1968-1970) with a 38-14 win over Cabell Midland in the 2012 finale.
In 2011, Martinsburg beat Huntington High, 46-7, in the second round.
Billy Seals, in his fifth season as Huntington High's coach, is confident his players won't be overwhelmed by the setting or stakes.
"We'll watch 'Hoosiers' (a movie about a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that wins the state championship). We'll take a tape measure and measure the field length-wise and width-wise. Same thing in Huntington," Seals said. "The kids have done a great job of keeping emotions out of it. Our team's been very focused on the task at hand.
"A lot of the kids played in that game at Martinsburg. They played Morgantown last year (second round loss). Some played basketball and played against Martinsburg in the state tournament last year (a first round loss to the eventual state champion).
"They've been on the big stage before, just not as big as this one. I think our kids will handle themselves well."
Huntington (13-0) punched its ticket to the championship game with a 34-21 win over Wheeling Park last week at Bob Sang Stadium.
"I think it'll hit me Sunday after the game," Seals said about the meaning of the contest. "Right now you get so involved with the game. You really don't sit down and think I'm playing for a state championship. It's a business trip. We've stressed that every day. If we're fortunate to win the game Saturday, they can have a great time on the bus ride home.
"The kids understand. The seniors (18) have done a great job of telling the underclassmen there ain't no messing around. Let's face it. I've been telling them they're on borrowed time. They've got one week left in football season."
This is Martinsburg's eighth trip to Wheeling Island Stadium since 2001. The Bulldogs lost in their first four appearances. Counting the three-year title run and 12-1 record to date, Martinsburg is 53-2 overall the past four seasons.
Martinsburg advanced with a 35-21 win over Capital last week at Cobourn Field in Martinsburg. The Bulldogs scored twice within 11 seconds early in the first period to open a 14-0 lead and they remained in control from that point.
The catalyst for Martinsburg's offense is quarterback Malique Watkins. He scored on a 5-yard run and tossed a 38-yard TD pass to Deamonte Lindsay in that opening spurt. Capital cut the lead to 28-21 with 4:47 left, but the Bulldogs marched 59 yards on the next possession to secure the win.
"It all runs through him," Seals said of Watkins. "He's very impressive on film. He moves around well and makes plays on the run."
The Highlanders have to contain Lindsay as well. He had 58 yards receiving and rushed for 110 and scored three times.
"He can pick them up and put them down, too," Seals said. "He runs like a dang gazelle. Up front they're not as big as they have been, but they stay after you. They block their tails off."
On defense, Martinsburg held explosive Capital fo 217 total yards -- 113 passing and 104 rushing.
"Typical Martinsburg defense. They're going to be physical," Seals said. "They've got great athletes on the back end. They force you to complete some passes. You can tell they take great pride in their defense."
Huntington High has featured a strong running game all year led by Paden Christian at fullback and speedy halfbacks Nick Tubbs and Charles Crawford. However, the Highlanders completed just one pass in the last two playoff games and that allowed George Washington and Wheeling Park to load the box with defenders.
Wheeling Park cut the lead to 27-21 late in the fourth period. The Highlanders took over at their 20 with 4:39 left and moved (all runs) to the visitor's 38 with just over a minute left. Ryan Gatrell's punt was downed at the 6 with 44.9 seconds to play. On Wheeling Park's first play, Stefan Gibbs picked off a pass and ran five yards for a TD to ice the outcome.
Fan support has been growing week by week, season by season. When Seals and the players are out about town, they see signs and banners everywhere wishing them good luck.
"What an atmosphere. It's great for our community, great for Huntington and great for the kids," Seals said. "It's a small-town atmosphere. You drive around and it's like a "Friday Night Lights" movie. Everything's closed down and signs are up everywhere. The kids appreciate that.
"I challenge the community to come out and support them again, one last game. Wheeling's a short trip (3 hours, 15 minutes). Anybody wants to fly, call somebody. I don't have a plane. This is a great opportunity for our community and program."
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