By Tom Bragg, For Lootpress.com
CHARLESTON, W.Va – Hurricane’s playoff history has been marked by disappointment, but first-year head coach Donnie Mays is aiming to change that, and he thinks he has a football team that can help erase some of the bad memories from the past.
The Redskins finished the regular season at 8-2, with both losses coming by a combined six points – 31-28 at Spring Valley and 24-21 last week at home against Huntington. That loss to the Highlanders cost Hurricane a first-ever Mountain State Athletic Conference championship, but as the No. 4 seed in the Class AAA state playoff the Redskins have their sights set on a bigger prize.
“We’re only six months into this school, football-wise, and we lost two games by three points each,” said Mays, who made the move to Putnam County this season after a long career as an assistant and head coach at South Charleston. “One time we had our offense on the field with an opportunity to win it against Spring Valley, and one time we had our defense with an opportunity to close it down against Huntington. We came up short on both ends of those, but I think that’s just us getting to know each other, knowing what the expectations are and learning how to finish together.”
Hurricane hosts No. 13 University and veteran coach John Kelley on Friday at 7:30 p.m.at Redskin Stadium looking to shake off that loss to Huntington last week and make some history of its own. This season the Redskins scored a program-record 448 points and rose as high as No. 2 in the WVSSAC playoff ratings before finishing at No. 4 when the bracket was set. Mays said all along one of the main things he kept reminding his team about was the playoffs and what it takes to win once you get there.
“Our kids have bought in to what we’re trying to sell,” Mays said. “They’ve taken the bull by the horns and led us to a really good football season – the best ranked season in the school’s history. We broke the scoring record. We’ve got a lot of good things going for us and one of the things that we really focused on was the playoffs and making sure we understand what it takes when you get there.”
The No. 13 Hawks feature a talented offense led by quarterback Luke Hudson, who completed 178 of 297 pass attempts for 2,386 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. University also features capable running backs in Melique Lewis and Noah Braham. Receiver Jaeden Hammack was Hudson’s favorite target this season, catching 59 passes for 772 yards and seven touchdowns.
“I watched [Hudson] make a couple of throws this year that you don’t normally see high school kids make,” Mays said. “The key is going to be to see if we can get him off his launch point a little bit – make him move and create some areas of concern whenever he’s trying to throw the ball. That’s the easiest way to put it because if you let him stand back there he can pick you apart.
“[Kelley] always has good football teams [at University]. They’re always well coached and well managed. They do a real nice job offensively, defensively and on special teams. Credit goes to their staff, but they have some really good players on their football team.”
Hurricane features a physical one-two punch at running back with seniors Jeremiah Riffle and Mondrell Dean seeing most of the carries. Riffle was especially good this season, and after running for 1,835 yards and 18 touchdowns figures to be a name to watch for postseason awards – especially if the Redskins win a few postseason games.
Sophomore Noah Vellaithambi, a George Washington transfer prior to the season, took over at quarterback for Hurricane this season and ran the offense well. Vellaithambi completed 113 of 187 passes for 1,902 yards with 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
“He had to grow up really quick,” Mays said of his young quarterback. “It has been a good season for him. He has taken care of the football, which is really important, and the last game he let a couple of balls get away from him but you’re going to live and learn and grow throughout the year.
“When we have our meetings, he knows exactly what he’s supposed to do with the football. He’s on par with some of the quarterbacks I’ve had [at South Charleston] in the past – Tyler Harris, Kentre Grier, Trey Dunn. He’s got a live arm and a strong arm. He can push the ball from one hash to the other numbers. We just haven’t had the opportunity to show that yet, but hopefully we get one coming up.”