Seals lifts HHS freshmen from winless to winners
HUNTINGTON -- Toney Kitts remembers those Friday nights in the 2009 Huntington High School football season.
A freshman for the Highlanders that season, the two-way lineman watched the varsity finish 0-10 under first-year coach Billy Seals. The freshman team posted a 5-2 mark, but the Friday night agony negated the good vibes those freshmen generated.
Kitts, a 5-foot-11, 240-pound lineman, and the band of seven -- the seven freshmen from 2009 who made it through that miserable season -- will be in much better moods Friday when they charge onto the turf at Bob Sang Field for their Senior Night game against Capital. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
The 2012 Highlanders are 8-1, ranked No. 3 in Class AAA, have locked up at least two home playoff games and have possession of the Victory Bell, the traveling trophy that goes to the winner of their annual clash with Capital. They brought it home a year ago with a 35-14 win over the Cougars at Laidley Field in Charleston.
Huntington High's only loss this season was 14-13 to No. 1 Cabell Midland in Week 5.
Capital comes in 6-3 and No. 10 in Class AAA.
"When we joined the varsity, I said, 'Wow.' I didn't expect it to be that bad," Kitts said Wednesday before going out to practice. "I knew watching games would be tough. There was no one in the stands. I'd never seen this before."
That disaster served as inspiration to this senior class and the two prior classes.
"We said we've got to do this, get better," Kitts said. "It was a sign of faith in our class."
The seniors who've shared in this turnaround with Kitts are Mark Shaver, quarterack/linebacker; Torrey Baker, wide receiver/defensive back; Lamar Thompson, running back/linebacker; Payton Johnson, linebacker/running back; Aerison Parrish, two-way lineman; and Jarod Martin, tight end/defensive line.
"We've got some kids leaving a legacy. They stayed the course," Seals said.
Shaver arrived at Huntington High from Beverly Hills Middle School where the Blackhawks had won the Cabell County Middle School championship.
"I thought it would be good. We're at a new level," Shaver said. "Coach was frustrated. You'd watch and see how mad he was. We had the athletes, we just didn't put it all together. I don't accept losing. It hurts. This was something I'd never seen before. Our group vowed to change it."
In addition to playing in games, the freshmen from 2009 also did scout team work. They helped the varsity prepare for that week's opponent. They all had to learn what life was like with Seals calling the shots.
"They learned what to do, what not to do," Seals said.
Seals said it's special when that first freshman group makes it through.
"It justifies what we do as a program," Seals said. "With what we brought in, obviously there were early growing pains. Staying with it paid dividends. I came to build a program. The kids respect that."
Seals will have his customary chat with the seniors prior to kickoff. He said each group made contributions to build a solid, lasting foundation.
"That first group laid some little bricks," Seals said. "We promised to get it fixed. The 4-6 team, we started to learn, to get hungry. Last year we raised the bar.
"Each senior (2012) is different. They have good leadership qualities. There's not a lot of vocal leaders, they lead by example. That will take you a long way in life. They're prepared pretty well."
The Highlanders went 4-6 in 2010, a loss to Capital in the finale denying them a playoff berth. Last season, they finished 8-4 with a loss at Martinsburg in the second round of the playoffs.
Seals said it's been a pleasure coaching Kitts, a heavyweight on the Huntington High wrestling team, and Shaver.
"The best lineman since I've been here," Seals said of Kitts. "A steady Eddie. You get the same thing every week. Mark runs the offense and doesn't make mistakes."
Kitts and Shaver said the bounce they see at practices these days more than makes up for the all the long faces they witnessed in 2009.
"Friday nights now. ... Wow, they're great," Kitts said. "The big crowds, the support. We have faith, the fans have faith we're going to win."
"The seven who stuck it out. ... we knew if we go out play to our potential, we expect to win," Shaver said. "At Martinsburg last year we thought we had a shot. We were like deer in the headlights, happy to be there. This time we want to be in Wheeling. That's how we feel."