Despite an undefeated run the Class AA championship game last season, Independence has fielded questions abut the legitimacy of its stellar regular season success and candidacy as a contender due to its lackluster schedule.
Now the Patriots will have an opportunity to show the state why those games were so lopsided on the biggest stage.
The Class AA playoffs kickoff this week with the Patriots once again earning the No. 2 seed and the right to host throughout the postseason. Their projected path back to Wheeling isn’t an easy one, though, with a bracket that features Bluefield and two-time defending state champion Fairmont Senior – the two premier teams of the classification over the last five years.
Indy head coach John H. Lilly won’t get caught looking ahead though with the Beavers first up, and rightfully so. The veteran head coach, a graduate of Bluefield, has led Indy to two wins over his alma mater in the last 12 months and hopes to make it three, but also realizes this isn’t your average first-round foe.
“The only thing on my mind is trying to find a way to win a game on Friday night,” Lilly said. “That’s the truth and I know (the media) probably doesn’t believe it. Now I don’t know about the kids or the community but John. H’s mind is on how can we win this next game? That’s all we can control.
“All the pedigree that they have, I don’t think our guys are overlooking them. They know exactly who we’re playing. We’re playing a team that’s been to 16 state championships and we know we’ve got a huge challenge to get out of here with a win.”
When Lilly puts on the tape he sees a different Bluefield team than the one he faced in September.
“I think they adjusted to losing Amir (Hairston),” Lilly said. “It took them a little bit of time to figure out how they’d be offensively without him but they figured it out. They know exactly who they are and what they want to do and they’re improved. They’ve still got big plays and that’s concerning. They’ve got some dudes and anytime they get the ball naturally it makes you a little nervous going into the game when they’ve got a guy that can score anytime and they’ve got a few of those.”
To make up for the loss of Hairston the Beavers have turned QB Caleb Fuller into more of a running threat and he’s responded with nine touchdown runs over the Beavers’ last five games. Having thrown for over 1,600 yards and 14 scores, he’s a legitimate dual threat for the Patriots to contain but he’s not alone.
R.J. Hairston leads a trio of Bluefield receivers that each have over 300 yards receiving this year.
But the Patriots counter with a defense that’s allowed 2.6 points per game (the seven points given up in the Nicholas County game came on a kickoff return), posting six total goose eggs. Cyrus Goodson and Trey Bowers, a pair of first-team all-state defensive backs, have patrolled the skies for the Patriots and figure to factor into Friday’s game plan.
On offense Judah Price has shattered records last year’s Kennedy Award winner, Atticus Goodson, established. Price established a new single-season scoring record with 300 this season and has rushed for nearly 1,800 yards despite playing what’s amounted to nearly 18 quarters of football.
More importantly though, this Indy group is seasoned and playoff ready. They’ve played a total of five playoff games throughout their careers, including two against state champions.
That’s perhaps one of the most important aspects of this postseason berth and one Lilly hopes aids them.
“I do think it helps,” Lilly said. “Having been there and been part of the atmosphere and the games and the preparation and knowing what to expect is vital. It’s very important. When you go for the first time and haven’t been there for awhile you just don’t know what to expect. At least we’ve been there and have a little bit of experience doing it. Hopefully it still helps.”
That said, the goal is clear – get back to Wheeling and play for another state championship. It’s easier said than done, something Lilly’s preached to his team.
“That’s the thing – it’s so hard to maintain a high level for 16 weeks,” Lilly said. “That’s why there’s only one team left at the end of the year. It’s hard to play at a certain level for a long time. That’s why it’s so hard to get there and you can’t let your guard down at all. That’s why you don’t look ahead. Everyone always thinks they have this bracket figured out and I’m telling you right now there will be some upsets Friday night. I think there are some teams that think they’re better than what they are and I think there’s some teams that people don’t think are very good that are pretty good and that’s why they play the game. The biggest thing for us is being able to maintain playing at a high level for a few more weeks. Can we do that?”
Independence will welcome Bluefield on Friday with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m.
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