High school sports year in review
HUNTINGTON -- Probably the most notable change in the high school sports landscape in the Tri-State going into 2013 is just that -- a change in landscape.
Veterans Memorial Field House in Huntington, which had stood for 62 years and housed the Huntington St. Joe Invitational Tournament for 35 years, is gone.
The SJI games played there on Jan. 21, 2012, were the last the Field House would host. A final, official farewell for the facility was conducted on Feb. 10, and later that month parts of the arena were sold off in memorabilia auctions.
The diggers and tower cranes moved in over the summer, and the building came down.
For much of 2012, locals reminisced about the Marshall games, high school games, concerts and events that had taken place at the Field House, but almost all of the memories focused on the SJI.
Three-and-a-half decades is enough for more than one generation to make memories associated with an annual event at the same facility, and the Field House and SJI were practically synonymous.
Many were content to remember, while others tried to stop the demolition. Unfortunately, the Field House had not been well-maintained and a renovation to bring the building up to 21st century standards would have cost millions.
The SJI was known for great basketball, team spirit and, of course, goofy student skits -- a tradition associated with the SJI alone.
In late January 2013, the SJI will take place at the Big Sandy Supestore Arena, while the former site of the Field House is converted into a soccer complex for Marshall University.
Fans will just have to wait and see if the tournament can overcome its symbiotic relationship with its former building and carry the same spirit and tradition to a new locale.
SPEAKING OF ST. JOE: The Huntington St. Joe girls basketball team went beyond dynasty status when the Irish defeated Wheeling Central 57-49 in March, marking their fourth straight Class A state title.
And don't count the Irish out in 2013 either, as they've returned the core group of Mychal Johnson -- a junior, and top 25 national recruit who has verbally committed to Notre Dame -- Asia Petitte and Griffin Dempsey. Johnson's sister, Michelle, is also getting some playing time as a freshman and looks to be a dangerous player down the road.
The Class AAA teams are all looking to improve from a bit of a down year in 2011-12, and it's anyone's guess how everything will play out when it is all decided.
Huntington High's girls missed a trip to the state semifinals for the first time in four years last season when they were knocked out in the quarters by Greenbrier East.
The Highlanders are 6-2 so far in the 2012-13 campaign, and are leaning heavily on senior Marshall signee Kiana Evans, who has been streaky at times. Post player Dominque Gibson also has struggled with consistency and illness early on, not yet resembling her form from last season.
NOT SO "OUT WAYNE": Perhaps Wayne residents should consider changing those "OW" vehicle stickers to "TT" for "Title Town."
The Wayne Pioneers girls softball team captured its first state title in dramatic fashion in May, winning two games in one day to claim the crown.
Both wins came by holding off rallies from Keyser and Ritchie County in their final at-bats. It also marked the Pioneers' first 30-win season.
Don't be shocked if Wayne is back again in 2013.
The Pioneers had only one senior, Kayla Adams. Back will be standout shortstop Jessica Watts, who has already signed to play softball for Marshall. She's the first player from Wayne to sign to a Division I school since 2000.
Speaking of repeats, the Pioneers football team followed their 2011 Class AA state football title with another in 2012.
But this season's run was unlike anything Wayne, or any other school in the region, had ever seen in recent memory.
Nobody got close to the Pioneers all season.
Wayne won its regular season games by an average of about 40 points, then outscored their final three opponents in the playoffs 111-0.
In fact, though the WVSAAC took its time in finally rating Wayne No. 1 in Class AA during the season, the Pioneers never trailed at any point in a single game.
Talking to head coach Tom Harmon midweek began to become a bit of a running joke.
"Is this the week someone gets close? Will you even know how to respond if a game is close?"
Around mid-season, Harmon quipped that he hoped the team never got tested, so he wouldn't have to find out what would happen to the Pioneers under pressure. Wish granted.
After winning two straight state titles, and not having lost a game since September 2011, expectations will be high for Wayne come fall of 2013. What they did in 2012 will be hard to top, but those who kept waiting for the other shoe to drop this past season never heard a sound, so who knows?
Plus, most of the team's starters, four of which made first team all state, were out by the second half. So the reserves got plenty of experience.
FOOTBALL FEVER: While Wayne was going about its business crushing opponents week in and out in AA, the greater Huntington area was ground zero for championship contenders in Class AAA.
The showdown of the season occurred Sept. 28 when Cabell Midland came calling to Huntington High, while both teams were tied atop the state ratings at No. 1.
The game lived up to its billing, as Huntington High's stalwart defense went to work against Midland's vaunted running attack.
Cabell Midland backs Lowell Farley and David Gaydosz, a Winfield transfer, both found the end zone in the contest, and the Knights blocked an extra point and a field goal on two controversial plays for a 14-13 win in the Battle for the Shield.
Meanwhile, Spring Valley, which started off with losses to Midland and Huntington High, was fighting for its playoff life by the third week of the season. Quietly, the Timberwolves started to rack up the wins as the pounding ground attack of Ryan George and Elijah Wellman ate up yards.
The Timberwolves only lost one other game all season, and ended up hosting a playoff contest and winning the first playoff game in school history after 10 tries, knocking off Wheeling Park 31-7.
Spring Valley also gave undefeated Midland a scare, falling 28-26 to the Knights the next week.
Wellman has verbally committed to West Virginia University as a fullback, but might have a tough decision looming.
The gridiron juggernaut also has a mean fastball in the 90 mph zone that has caught the attention of some Major League Baseball scouts.
Cabell Midland rode its backfield and unbeaten record all the way to the state title game, when they finally fell, 38-14, to Martinsburg.
Farley and Gaydosz will graduate in 2013, but head coach Luke Salmons is building a strong tradition at Midland, and no one should be surprised if the Knights are a formidable foe next season.
The same can be said for the program Billy Seals is building at Huntington High. After multiple losing seasons, the Highlanders went 8-4 in 2011 and 9-3 with a playoff victory in 2012.
Across the river in Ohio and Kentucky, most of the traditional powerhouses had good seasons but failed to make deep playoff runs.
However, in two years former Marshall offensive lineman Nathan McPeek has completely changed the culture of the football program at tiny Class A Fairview High School just outside of Ashland.
In 2011, the Eagles went 12-1, not suffering a loss until the quarterfinals of the Class A playoffs.
In 2012, the Eagles broke all kinds of new ground, going undefeated through the season and making it to the semi-finals for the first time in school history. Then it was on to the finals. Unfortunately, that's where the Eagles were handed their first loss once again, falling 68-7 to Mayfield in the title game.
McPeek's team was laden with seniors, especially in the backfield, so 2013 might be a bit of a rebuilding year for Fairview. Then again, 2012 might have just been another step toward a true undefeated season and state championship.
GETTING THEIR KICKS: Region IV, and more specifically, Putnam County, was a hotbed of talent in regard to soccer in 2012. Both Class AAA state champions -- the Winfield girls and Hurricane boys -- emerged from Region IV.
Both of those victories came at the expense of the Huntington High Highlanders.
Felipe Thomas and Alex White of Hurricane were both named to the all-state boys team, while Jayne Lawman, Emily Cole and Erin Midkiff of Winfield made the all-state girls team.
Lawman made first team all-state as a sophomore.
She had 29 goals on the season and was coach Marshall Hoff's go-to player in crunch time, scoring a game-winning goal against Huntington High in double overtime of the regional final, and two goals in overtime in the state final to win the championship over George Washington.
Meanwhile, three of Huntington High's senior girls players made headlines when they committed to play for NCAA Division I programs at the next level. All three also made the all-state team.
Defender Braddick Price committed to Gardner Webb, while midfielder/forwards Kelsie Burns and Summer Wheatley committed to Army and Marshall respectively.
With Lawman around for another two years, Winfield is likely to remain formidable, along with the Hurricane girls, while Huntington High, Cabell Midland and Spring Valley will have to rebuild with some young talent.
On the boys side, it's hard to say who will emerge in 2013. Hurricane will have to rebuild, but so will Huntington High, and to a certain extent, Cabell Midland and Spring Valley.
BURCHAM'S FINAL LAP: Over the past four years, Jacob Burcham has gone from local superstar to international competitor in distance running, even competing with "USA" stitched on the front of his jersey.
In the fall, Burcham took first place at the state competition in cross country, and his team, Cabell Midland, took the overall state title.
Burcham will have his last hurrah in the spring during track and field season, when he will compete in three distance events at meets for the Knights.
He has committed to the University of Oklahoma to further his running career.
GETTING PREPPY: If crowds seem a little thin at boys basketball events this season, it might have to do with the basketball academy in town, Huntington Prep.
Right now the Express is the No. 1 high school team in the country, and boasts the No. 1 2013 college prospect in Andrew Wiggins. Prep also has some top recruits for down the road in Motaque Gill-Caesar and Moses Kingsley. Dominic Woodson has already committed to play for Baylor.
The Express has been drawing huge crowds wherever they play, and among the throng have been some high profile coaches, like North Carolina's Roy Williams.
When it comes to everyday kids playing for their actual high schools, just about everyone in Region IV in West Virginia is looking to improve, and is on their way. Huntington High was the only Region IV school with a winning record last season, and that was at 13-12.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, Ironton looks like it might have the best tandem in the Tri-State in guard Zac Carter and forward Trey Fletcher.
The Fighting Tigers missed a trip to the state tournament in 2012 with a 50-40 loss to rival Portsmouth in the regional final.
But after watching both teams play in the Ironton Classic, the Tigers may have the inside track this time around. Then again, perhaps the Trojans haven't hit their stride yet.
Expectations have also been raised at Chesapeake and Fairland, after the Panthers went 22-2 last season and the Dragons nearly punched a ticket to state.
In Kentucky, Ashland is looking formidable once again, although the team suffered a setback losing 80-61 to Newport Central Catholic in the final of the 58th Ashland Invitational Tournament.
Still, the Tomcats are 9-3 and have a solid foundation with the likes of Nick Miller, Tyler Stewart and Logan Salow.
The Russell Red Devils also might be ready to make some noise again in the 16th Region. The Devils placed third in the AIT, are 9-4 and hung with Newport Central, having a chance to tie late before falling 67-61 in the contest.
TRIUMPHS AND TRAGEDY: As Wayne celebrated its softball and football state titles, fellow student athlete Kristen Stiltner was always in their hearts.
Stiltner, 17, who played volleyball and basketball for the Pioneers, was killed in a car crash in May.
Her memory is not only honored by her peers, but by a 5K run in July that had 137 participants, with all of the proceeds going to Stiltner's parents.
2012 was certainly memorable for Winfield as it relates to sports.
In the spring, senior pitcher Dusty Kincaid was hit with a comeback line-drive that struck him right in the temple.
The impact caused a skull fracture and brain bleeding, made even more dangerous by swelling.
Emergency surgery was performed, and Kincaid emerged from the hospital seven days later. His pitching days were done, but by the end of the season, Kincaid was traveling with the team.
Another Winfield athlete to win a fight for survival was football player Jeremy Huff.
Diagnosed with a cluster of brain tumors, Huff had surgery to remove one tumor and underwent chemotherapy and other treatments for the rest in 2011.
On Nov. 2, 2012, Huff was cancer free and back in uniform for the Generals as they faced Spring Valley at home. Huff came in for the first play of the game, a non-contact snap from Huff to quarterback Chance Short, who took a knee.
Huff was carried off the field by his teammates.