Huntington High hits new height, as does opponent
HUNTINGTON -- Two teams enter unfamiliar territory Saturday when Wheeling Park takes on Huntington High in one West Virginia Class AAA semifinal football game at 7:30 p.m. at Bob Sang Stadium.
The No. 5 Patriots (11-1) are in this round for the first time since 1991. This is a first for the No. 1 Highlanders (12-0) since consolidation in 1996.
While fellow students enjoyed Thanksgiving break this week, Huntington High coach Billy Seals and the Highlanders had no such luxury as they had to prepare for an opponent potent on offense and stingy on defense.
"Players said this was the most enjoyable practice they've had," Seals said Monday after his team completed a two-hour session -- one hour inside and one hour out because of rain and cold. "They're excited to have the opportunity to go this far."
Seals is in his fifth season at Huntington High. The transition reads 0-10 in his first year to 12-0 and counting.
For the 18 seniors on this team, they enjoyed an 8-4 season as sophomores and 9-3 mark as juniors when they made it to the second round of the playoffs.
"They understand they're on borrowed time," Seals said. "This will be their last time on that field. We haven't brought it up a lot, but it's going to hit.
"This shows where the program is. We've slowly crawled our way to elite class. We have to be consistent with it."
Playoff fever appears to be on the rise around town. Signs wishing the Highlanders good luck can be seen at businesses, in yards and on the road leading up to Highlander Mountaintop.
"We're your school," Seals said of representing the community. "The kids drive around and see the boards and signs. They know the community is behind them. That means so much to them. We had to sell a program to the kids and community when I first got here. They've bought into it."
Seals now has to find a way to general a bit more offense and maintain its prowess on defense against explosive Wheeling Park.
Charles Crawford scored on a 9-yard run on a toss sweep with 40.2 seconds left to lift Huntington to a 17-13 win over No. 8 George Washington last Friday at home. He scored on a 34-yard run on a similar call in the first period. It was the third time in the last four games that the Highlanders have won by eight points or less.
Highlanders quarterback Clark Wilson threw two interceptions in each of the first two playoff games. Lewis County converted one into a score as did George Washington. The Patriots showed at least 9 players in the box on each snap, daring the Highlanders to show they could throw.
"We've got to throw better to open things up and keep them off balance," Seals said. "They've got size on both fronts and that's a concern. We can't give them a short field."
Wheeling Park has won six straight by an average of 30.8 points per game. The Patriots won at No. 4 Point Pleasant last week, 28-7. They limited the Big Blacks to 240 total yards. Their last loss was to Morgantown, 41-38, in overtime on Oct. 11 at Morgantown. In that game, Wheeling Park had a 35-19 lead with 3:22 left in the third period.
Seals knows Wheeling Park has big-play potential in quarterback Zach Phillips, receiver Elijah Bell and running back Savion Johnson. Phillips found Bell for a 58-yard TD strike last week and Johnson sprinted 79 yards for a score to give the Patriots a 14-7 lead at halftime. He finished with 144 yards on 14 carries. Bell also returned an interception 32 yards for a touchdown with 1:10 left in the third to expand the lead to 21-7. Geremy Paige's 8-yard TD run in the fourth wrapped up in the win. On defense, Paige recorded 19 tackles and two quarterback sacks to give him 140 stops and 10 sacks for the season.
"Paige is the best we've played against," Seals said. "He makes plays all over the field. We've got to block him. Bell is a big-play guy. He can run. We've got to limit his touches. We've got to tackle in the open field and rally to the football. They're a complete football team."