HHS defense earns respect from four-time state champs
WHEELING -- If an award was given for state champion defense, Huntington High would have hoisted it Saturday at midfield.
The top-rated Highlanders (13-1) stymied the state's most potent offense in a 9-7 loss to Martinsburg in the Class AAA football state championship game at Wheeling Island Stadium.
A special teams safety was the difference in a contest in which Huntington High held the Bulldogs to 83 total yards -- more than 300 less than they average. Martinsburg (13-1) lost 31 yards in the second half as a Huntington High defense led by defensive tackle Nigale Cabell stuffed the run and nearly nullified the passing game.
Huntington High's secret was no secret.
"We went out and played," Cabell said. "We played hard like we do in every game."
Despite playing on a short field nearly all game, the Highlanders' defense was nearly unmovable. Martinsburg dynamic quarterback Malique Watkins ran for just 21 yards and passed for 39.
"They are good," Watkins said of the HHS defense. "They're the best we've played. We earned this one. It was tough. We knew they'd be tough. They did some things that took away our running game."
Martinsburg took a 2-0 lead when it blocked a punt out of the end zone for a safety at 8:31 of the second quarter. The Bulldogs made it 9-0 on a 5-yard pass from Watkins to Troy Walker with 3:01 left in the first half, capping a 35-yard drive.
Second-rated Martinsburg, which won its state record fourth consecutive championship, started drives in HHS territory six times, yet the Highlanders' defense yielded just one score.
"We knew we had a chance as long as we could get the next stop," linebacker Matthew Shaver said. "We played our guts out."
Martinsburg averaged better than 40 points per game this season. The Bulldogs, though, never found a way to block a defensive line that took away the middle, linebackers who strung out the run or a secondary that swatted away all but three passes.
"We had to tackle and not go for big hits," said Highlander linebacker Greg May. "We played as hard as we could."
Huntington High coach Billy Seals said he was proud of his team.
"We played really well on defense," Seals said. "We executed our scheme. We wanted to make Watkins give up the ball and we did that.
"When you hold Martinsburg to fewer than 100 yards, that's incredible."
Seals agreed with his players that they didn't do anything fancy to prepare for the powerful Bulldogs.
"We just played," Seals said. "Our kids have a lot of guts. The two best teams in West Virginia played tonight and we came up just a hair short."
The Highlander defense played with confidence against a team that outscored playoff teams Spring Valley and Cabell Midland a combined 90-28. The Bulldogs gained merely 44 yards rushing on 32 carries.
"We didn't think they could drive the length of the field on us," Seals said.
The fifth-year head coach was correct. Ten Martinsburg drives were of four plays or fewer against a defense that matched the Bulldogs' speed and swarmed to the ball. Watkins often found double- or triple-coverage when trying to pass and frequently paid for running the ball by being on the receiving end of jarring hits.
"They swarm to the ball good," Watkins said. "We executed the best we possibly could against them. They took away a lot."